bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Bee dance may counter espionage

Bee communication may indicate that spying is an evolutionary trait, according to James Nieh of the University of California. Bees may communicate the sources of nectar inside the hive or nest to ensure that competitors can't eavesdrop.

Some types of bee leave scent markings outside the hive indicating sources of nectar. In comparing aggressor and victim bee species, researchers found that the victims preferred their own scent markings, but the aggressors preferred the scent marks of their victims:
... the bees' responses are adaptive in both cases. The victim species avoids attack by avoiding resources marked by the aggressor species. On the other hand, exploiting the discoveries of other species provides the aggressor species with a steady means to find new rich food sources.

Bees are among a very limited number of species, besides humans, able to abstractly encode information about the physical world into signals understood by receivers. While scientists do not know what kind of communication the two species of bees employ within their hives, Nieh says his team's finding that they are able to spy on each other's olfactory markings sheds light on the long-standing mystery of why some other stingless bees and honeybees evolved one of the most sophisticated forms of animal language, strategies that would allow them to inform their kin about distance and direction to a food source while inside the hive.


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