Resources for Communication Problems

Monday, September 1, 2008

Bee Communication

Communication in Bees

Discover how bees communicate by sounds and dances and how these mechanisms have evolved.

"What do Bees Say to Other Bees?"

Watch now in Quicktime (with subtitles):

High Resolution Low Resolution

Watch now in Flash Player (without subtitles)

"See and Hear Bees Dance"

Watch now in Quicktime (with subtitles):

High Resolution Low Resolution

Watch now in Flash Player (without subtitles)


Aside from humans, the highly social bees (honey bees and stingless bees) are the only animals that use sophisticated symbolic communication. Honey bees can communicate the distance and direction to a good food source by using sounds and "dances" inside the nest. Honey bees cannot communicate height. Thus the discovery of a stingless bee that can symbolically communicate distance and height provides an exciting new opportunity to explore sophisticated symbolic communication.

Why This Science Matters

Basic Research

There are many levels at which this type of research has a broader significance. At one level, I believe that it appeals to anyone who has ever wondered what animals may be thinking and what they may be communicating. At another level, research into the evolution of sophisticated representational communication (the ability to abstractly encode and transmit information) approaches the giant goal of understanding the evolution of cognition and communication.

I will not claim that stingless bees can ever tell us how we think and how human communication evolved. However, we are not alone in the world and to understand how other sophisticated animal societies, namely the highly social bees, perceive and communicate information about their world may enable us to understand some of the possibilities that exist for the evolution of symbolic communication. Especially intriguing is the question of why symbolic communication is so rare. Only humans and highly social bees possess sophisticated symbolic communication. However, there is relatively little variation that can help us understand the evolution of symbolic communication in humans or honey bees. Stingless bees are a great group to explore because only some stingless bees possess symbolic communication. In other words, we can use the variation found in stingless bees to learn the advantages and disadvantages of symbolic communication.

Conservation Biology

At the level of biological conservation, stingless bees are keystone species. They are the most important native pollinator in Central and South America. Although Africanized honey bees have invaded many of these habitats, stingless bees occupy important niches. Understanding the role of stingless bees in their diverse ecosystems is therefore vital for our effort to preserve biodiversity and the study of stingless bee foraging and communication systems is an essential part of understanding their pollination strategies. In Brazil, researchers are already analyzing pollen and nectar gathered by stingless bees to understand how many species they effect, and how their pattern of pollination changes throughout the seasons. By decoding the symbolic communication of some species, we will also be able to learn where food sources are located, how their foraging range changes seasonally. In the future, we will be able to take a colony and have the researcher simply observe what is going on inside the nest, "decoding" the communication system to find out where the bees have gone for food. Imagine having thousands of probes scouting out the location of even the smallest flowers and inflorescences and reporting back to you!

Sustainable "Green" Economic Development

At an economic level, stingless bees have an important role to play in maintaining a sustainable livelihood that is intimately linked to protection of the forest environment. In the Amazon region, stingless bee honey that is made from natural nectar sources is highly prized. The cost of such honey is similar to the cost of fine French champagne! Stingless bee honeys are believed to be medically beneficial and many types contain interesting compounds, including Alkaloids. In fact, stingless bee honey has interesting antibiotic effects that appear to derive from secondary compounds. Unlike the honey produced by honey bees, stingless bee honeys are usually not sweet enough to resist the development of bacteria and mold. Yet stingless bee honey is able to stay unspoiled in extremely humid, tropical environments.

Because such valuable honey can only be obtained from natural forests, stingless bee apiculture is a natural, sustainable way of harvesting resources that encourages forest preservation and can provide a source of income for local people. However before stingless bee "farming" can become widespread, it is essential that we learn more about their foraging system-what range they need, what types of nectar they collect, and how any artificial manipulations to improve honey harvests affect their recruitment communication systems.

No comments: