Why Honeybees Are Just Like Us

Honeybees’ clever dance routines demonstrate that they learn from others just like humans do.

<p><strong>Honey bees (Apis) fly to the entrance hole to their hive on a summer day on Aug. 31, 2022, in Berlin. New findings reveal that social learning influences honey bee signaling similarity to early communication in many vertebrate animals that benefit from learning. WOLFRAM STEINBERG/GETTY IMAGES</strong></p>

Nifty dance moves of honeybees shows they learn from others – just like humans, according to new research.

The “waggles” are a kind of shuffle they perform to tell the rest of their colony where to find nectar.

It is used to communicate the location of flowers. When one bee finds a good patch, it returns to the hive and performs a figure of eight movement on the honeycomb.

Peers then go off to source the same supply. The phenomenon is common in primates and birds – but had never been identified in insects.

Passing down shared knowledge from one generation to the next is a hallmark of culture – allowing animals to rapidly adapt to a changing environment.

It shows the pollinators are even more intelligent than suspected – with implications for conservation efforts.

Lead author Professor James Nieh, of the University of California San Diego, said: “We are beginning to understand that, like us, animals can pass down information important for their survival through communities and families.

“Our new research shows that we can now extend such social learning to include insects.”

While widely evident in species ranging from human infants to naked mole rats or fledgling songbirds, early social learning has now been documented in the vital pollinators.

A social insect with a highly organized community structure, honeybees help ensure the survival of their colonies through the waggle dance.

It is performed at breakneck speed – with individuals moving a complete body length in less than one second.

Motions translate visual information from the environment around the hive and the location of the sun into the distance, direction and even the quality of the resource to nestmates.

Transmitting the information accurately is a remarkable feat. They must move rapidly across an often uneven honeycomb hive surface.

In a series of experiments the international team tested waggle dance communication in more detail than ever before.

Honeybee pollinating a flower in Markham, Ontario, Canada, on August 27, 2022. While it is widely observed in species ranging from human infants to naked mole rats or fledgling songbirds, early social learning in pollinators has recently been documented. CREATIVE TOUCH IMAGING LTD/GETTY IMAGES

They created colonies to analyze transmission of information from skilled foragers to their younger, less experienced nestmates.

In these colonies the bees were never able to observe or follow waggle dancers before they first danced.

They consisted of young bees that were all the same age. Bees begin to dance when they reach the right age and always follow experienced dancers before they first attempt to dance.

The bees were therefore never able to learn from more experienced dancers.

Nieh said: “Bees without the opportunity to follow any dancers before they first danced produced significantly more disordered dances with larger waggle angle divergence errors and encoded distance incorrectly.”

On the other hand bees that shadowed other dances in control colonies did not suffer from such problems.

Early exposure to language development is essential in humans. The bees acquired social cues that were encoded and stayed with them for life – about 38 days.

Those that did not learn the correct waggle dance early doors were able to improve by subsequently watching other dancers and by practicing.

But they were never able to correctly encode distance – which creates the distinct “dialects” of different honey bee species.

In other words, the bees that could never observe other dancers during their critical early stage of learning developed a new dialect that they maintained for the rest of their lives.

Nieh said: “Scientists believe bee dialects are shaped by their local environments. If so, it makes sense for a colony to pass on a dialect that is well adapted to this environment.”

The findings show social learning shapes honey bee signaling as it does with early communication in many vertebrate species that also benefit from learning.

Bees produce over a third of our food. They are being wiped out by climate change, pesticides and diseases – reducing our ability to grow crops.

They have emotions, plan and imagine things and can recognize themselves as unique entities distinct from other bees.

Nieh and colleagues now want to understand the role of the environment in shaping bee language.

In future, they would like to find out if older, more experienced bees that know the distribution of food sources within their environment might be able to pass on an optimized dialect to the next generation.

They are also concerned that external threats could disrupt this early language learning. Studies have demonstrated the harm that commonly used pesticides can inflict on bees.

Nieh said: “We know that bees are quite intelligent and have the capacity to do remarkable things. Multiple papers have shown that pesticides can harm honey bee cognition and learning.

“Therefore pesticides might harm their ability to learn how to communicate and potentially even reshape how this communication is transmitted to the next generation of bees in a colony.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker