Close-up of aggressive stingless bee
Photo Credit: James Nieh, UCSD
Aggressive stingless bee attacking an Africanized honeybee (a "killer" bee)
Photo Credit: James Nieh, UCSD
A discovery by a University of California, San Diego biologist that some species of bees exploit chemical clues left by other bee species to guide their kin to food provides evidence that eavesdropping may be an evolutionary driving force behind some bees’ ability to conceal communication inside the hive, using a form of animal language to encode food location.
Bees can use two main forms of communication to tell their hive mates where to find food: abstract representations such as sounds or dances within the hive or scent markings outside the hive to mark the food and/or the route to it. In 1999, James Nieh, an assistant professor of biology at UCSD, published a paper in which he hypothesized communication within the hive may have evolved as a way of avoiding espionage by competitors.
Nieh’s most recent study, a collaboration with Brazilian biologists published June 16 in the early on-line version of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, is strong support for that hypothesis because it shows that bees can indeed use the chemical markings deposited by bees of other species to home in on and take over their food source. The paper will appear in print in Proceedings of the Royal Society in August.
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