Biologist discovers ‘stop’ signal in honey bee communication

By | February 11, 2010

A biologist at UC San Diego has discovered that honey bees warn their nest mates about dangers they encounter while feeding with a special signal that’s akin to a “stop” sign for bees.

The discovery, detailed in a paper in the February 23 issue of the journal Current Biology, which appears online today, resulted from a series of experiments on honey bees foraging for food that were attacked by competitors from nearby colonies fighting for food at an experimental feeder. The bees that were attacked then produced a specific signal to stop nest mates who were recruiting others for this dangerous location. Honey bees use a waggle dance to communicate the location of food and other resources. Attacked bees directed “stop” signals at nest mates waggle dancing for the dangerous location.

James Nieh, an associate professor of biology at UCSD who conducted the experiments, said this peculiar signal in bee communication was known previously by scientists to reduce waggle dancing and recruitment to food, but until now no one had firmly established a “clear natural trigger” for that behavior.

The stop sign is a brief vibrating signal made by the bee that lasts for about a tenth of a second with the bee vibrating at about 380 times a second. “It is frequently delivered by a sender butting her head into a recipient, although the sender may also climb on top of the receiver,” Nieh said.

Bee researchers originally called it a “begging call,” because they believed the signaling bee made it to obtain a food sample from the receiver.

But Nieh discovered in his experiments that one trigger for this signal—which caused the waggle dancers to stop and leave the nest—was attacks from bee competitors and simulated predators. The more dangerous the predator or competitor, he found, the more the stop signals bees produced to stop other bees from recruiting to that location. …

via Biologist discovers ‘stop’ signal in honey bee communication.

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