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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Social behaviour

The first bees probably evolved from the sphecoid wasps around 30 million years ago while honeybees had largely stabilised into their present forms about 27 million years ago. The evolution of bees is closely linked with the development of flowering plants with the insects acting as a pollen transfer vehicle in a relationship which benefits both pollinator and plant. Over the period of their evolution honeybees have moved to a complex social society from solitary and then communal living antecedents.

In any complicated social animal there is a requirement for sophisticated means of communication. Since Karl von Frisch first discovered how honeybees were able communicate by using dances a great deal has been learned about the language of the honeybee, and indeed of other social bees also. Colony members work together so that the survival of the whole 'superorganism' is enhanced. In honeybees this is characterised by a complex division of labour and loss of reproductive capacity by the workers in order that food can be collected, processed and stored in large quantities against times of shortage. This is an exceptionally successful survival strategy that has allowed bees to colonise  different ecological zones from the Arctic to Antarctic circles. It is this social structure that is at the heart of people's exploitation of honeybees.

The honeybee is one of the most researched creatures on earth so honeybee communication is the one we know most about. There are four main methods of sharing information: food sharing (properly called trophallaxis pheromone signals, dancing and vibrations.

Food sharing spreads certain types of information very rapidly through the colony. One worker will beg for food and another will offer it, regurgitating it from their crop -or honey stomach. Very quickly all the adult workers in the colony will have the same mix of nectar and other substances in their honey stomachs. While they are sharing food they are also touching each other with their antennae so they are sharing pheromones at the same time. Each colony has it own unique odour, which means all members of the colony know where they belong, and this touching and food sharing allows bees to recognise each other. It also tells other workers about the quality of the nectar coming into the hive, what types of nectar are most in demand and whether more water is needed.

There are many pheromones directing the life of the colony - and much that we do not yet know about. However, pheromones not only tell the workers that the queen is safe and laying eggs but also whether the colony is under attack from predators (or beekeepers). Lack of queen substance produced by the queen will contribute toward colony division (or swarming).  Alarm pheromones will tell other workers to come to the defences of the colony. The 'come and join me' (Nasanov pheromone) is used for marking things, so it helps a lost bee get home or helps a swarm of bees to a recognise the new nest site that has been chosen.

Dances and vibrations can tell the bees where the food is located and how abundant it is. They can encourage the bees to swarm and direct the divided colony to the new nest site after swarming while different types of vibrations may help to protect a virgin queen or give it away to its emerging rival queens who will kill it.


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