How Do Bees Communicate?

A research team with members from Freie Universität Berlin, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of Oslo have been measuring the electrostatic signals of bees

No 090/2021 from May 14, 2021

A research team composed of members from Freie Universität Berlin, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, and the University of Oslo have developed a method of monitoring the electrostatic signals of bees. The wax-covered surface of bees’ bodies is electrically charged by friction during flight, which they then emit as communication signals to other bees. The research group installed sensors and a central recording device in a specially designed beehive in order to measure data on the electrostatic fields (ESF) of honeybees. By recording electrostatic energy, researchers say that they can detect whether a bee colony is under threat from hazards like insecticides. The results of the study were published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Honeybees use a complex system of communication. By buzzing and acting out specific sequences of body movements, bees can communicate to members of their own hive to point them toward food sources, indicate hazards, and prepare for swarming. Researchers say that their communication behavior could even provide an insight into the overall well-being of the ecosystem. "Bees are among the first species to be impacted by pollutants. If they communicate less than they usually do, then this can be a sign that the ecosystem is in jeopardy," explains Professor Randolf Menzel from Freie Universität Berlin, who is head of the study.

The research team collaborated with 30 beekeepers throughout Germany over the course of five years. "We found that the ESF signals are transmitted when bees are preparing to swarm, and that their strength does not depend on environmental conditions like outdoor humidity and UV radiation," says Professor Menzel. The researchers were particularly interested in the "waggle dance," a sequence of movements that serves as a message system for bees. "The honeybee moves through a small figure-eight pattern, followed by a turn to the right to circle back to the starting point. This is how they communicate the flight direction and how far away food sources are," explains Menzel. The other bees follow the dancing bee and interpret its message so that they can then use this information for their own flights. The researchers found that bees do their waggle dances both throughout the day and during the night. The study also illustrated that insecticides used to ward off pests can have an adverse effect on how bees communicate.

"We were able to collect plenty of data. But we’ve just begun to use machine learning and algorithms to delineate and quantify electrostatic field signals," says Professor Menzel. The biologist says that further studies are needed to better and more precisely interpret the data. A wide range of measuring devices will also have to be used for more informative findings on the harmful effects of pesticides and the health of bees across larger areas. In the future, the researchers hope that eavesdropping on bees will provide them with even more significant information for us to understand and protect the entire ecosystem.


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