The extraordinary lives of bees

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The honey-making insects devote their lives to the benefit of the greater good. But bees also deserve respect as multi-talented individuals, writes Lee Williams.

A dog is man’s best friend, so the saying goes. But it’s not really true, unless you value friendship in terms of blind obedience and slobbery kisses. In terms of pure numbers, there is one creature that stands head and shoulders above the rest in its value to humankind. Say hello to our six-legged (and five-eyed) friend – the bee.

Bees are integral to our global agricultural system, and making honey is the smallest of their contributions – 84 per cent of all crops grown for human consumption are fertilised by bees, which means that one in three mouthfuls of food we eat depends on bee pollination in some way. That’s a lot of food and hence a lot of money – global crop production associated with bee pollination is estimated at US$170 billion per year. This doesn’t even touch on bees’ importance to the ecosystem of the planet – birds and mammals depend on the seeds, fruit and berries that bees pollinate, making them an essential link in the food chain of hundreds of species.

This essential role in our ecosystem is because of bees’ special relationship with flowers according to Dr James Makinson of Chittka Lab, a centre for bee studies at Queen Mary University of London. “About 50 million years ago flowering plants evolved,” says Makinson. “They developed associations with many different insect species, the most famous of which is bees, and developed a way of transporting pollen from male to female flowers.” Basically, bees need nectar and pollen from flowers as food, and flowers need bees to reproduce. The bees get covered in pollen from the male flowers, which they then deposit on female flowers, fertilising them in the process.

But it isn’t just their contribution to our ecosystems and agriculture that makes bees so special. They have several attributes and behaviours that make them exceptional little creatures. “If honey bees didn’t make honey or pollinate crops people would still study them because they’re so amazing,” says Francis Ratnieks, professor of apiculture at the University of Sussex. “The honeybee colony has over 20 communication mechanisms which they use to coordinate.” Of these the most complex is the so-called ‘waggle dance’ which is, according to Ratnieks, the most complex communication system occurring in any animal. The waggle dance is a way of pointing out sources of food in which a bee indicates the direction and distance of the food source by the angle and duration of its movements. The bee dances in a circle, bisecting it at regular intervals with a waggling motion. The angle of the waggle in relation to the circle represents the direction of the food in relation to the sun, and the number of waggles the distance from the hive.

Individual buzz

Bees can also make informed decisions on which are the best sources of food by watching other bees’ behavior, according to Makinson, and they can recognise patterns in an environment so well they can even recognise the different styles of painters, according to one study. Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia showed that bees could discriminate between Picasso and Monet paintings when one style of painting was associated with a food reward.

But it is perhaps the way that bees come together to form societies that makes them most special. Honeybee colonies are made up of 10- 60,000 bees including a queen, male drones and female workers. The drones’ job is to fertilise the queen who gives birth to new bees. As their name suggests, the workers do pretty much everything else from cleaning and heating the hive to feeding the young, carrying food, guard duty and foraging. Incredibly each individual worker does all these jobs – some of which require physiological changes in their bodies – at different periods of their lives. In early stages they clean and feed the young, progressing to food-carrying, comb- building and undertaking duties, then guarding the hive entrance and finally foraging.

This incredible flexibility doesn’t stop there.

Bees can modify their duties on their own initiative in response to what the colony’s needs are at a given time. Thus, according to Makinson, if a forager bee is waiting for a long time for another worker to collect its honey, it will assume there is enough food in the hive and delay its next foraging trip. “They deserve a certain amount of respect as individuals,” says Makinson. “If they were just mindless automatons reacting to set stimuli then you wouldn’t expect a difference in choice between individuals but what we’ve seen is they do learn and they do take on board social information.”

Large societies require policing and again, bees are up to the task. Female workers have a selfish motivation to lay their own eggs as these would be genetically closer to them. However this doesn’t benefit the hive overall, so if workers lay their own eggs, other workers kill the eggs to prevent future conflict. “As with our own society, amongst bees policing doesn’t just solve crimes, it prevents them,” says Ratnieks.

Self-policing, individual initiative and advanced communication techniques – perhaps we shouldn’t just be marvelling at how special bees are, but what we can learn from them ourselves, especially their ability to cooperate in large numbers. As professor Ratnieks says: “60,000 flies in a box is just 60,000 flies in a box, but 60,000 bees are a society – they’re working together for a purpose, they’re coordinated, they’re organised and that’s the amazing thing about them.”

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Photo credit: Mark Strobl from Flickr

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