Honey bees are known for their fascinating social structure. A honey bee colony is in fact a well-organized machine, running on good communication, defense and division of labor. As social insects, honey bees have also been shown the communicate to their fellow foragers, a dance to tell their counterparts where food is located.
But listening to other bees isn’t always the name of the game. Sometimes the honeybee just wants to do its own thing.
According to new research by ecologists Ellouise Leadbeater and Claire Florent, if a foraging bumblebee knows where good food can be found, it will ignore the advice of the other bees.
As Leadbeater and Florent write, “All bees in our study had personal information that one species of artificial flower was rewarding, and bees in the scent group then experienced social information about an alternative-scented species inside the nest, while a control group did not. On their next foraging bout, bees in both groups overwhelmingly used personal information when deciding where to forage.”
We like to think of honeybees as social creatures, but this new research shows that they’ve also got an independent streak.
So how did the researchers track whether or not a bee was informed by its bee friends or from personal experience?
A group of 42 bees was let loose in an experimental garden. In that garden, there were artificial flowers scented with essential oils of geraniums, as well as a small well with 50 microliters of a nectar-like sugar solution, i.e. bee food. Once they had hung out in the garden, the bees were divided into two groups. One group returned to their colony to deposit the nectar and found their colony exactly the same as when they had left it. The other group, however, returned to a colony laced with essential oils of lavender, as if their fellow bees had been foraging in a lavender field.
When they went out on their next foraging tour, there were both geranium-scented artificial flowers and lavender-scented ones. Which ones did the bees choose?
“As before, all 42 bumblebees headed for the geranium-scented flowers, regardless of what scent they had encountered in their colony. Similarly, all but two of the bees made between six and eight geranium visits before deciding to take a chance with the lavender-scented ones,” writes the Economist. Even if a bee had picked up on the lavender scent in its colony, it didn’t really trust its fellow hive members to go to the lavender directly.
So while honeybee colonies are certainly social structures, honeybees like to be independent just like the rest of us. You can almost imagine a bee saying “thanks for the info friend, but I’m off to the flowers I know are good.”
Photo Credit: Ryan Wick