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Planet Earth

Honeybees—Espionage Mission

The importance of dancing in the hive.

By Sarah WitmanOctober 1, 2004 5:00 AM


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For more than half a century, biologists have been driven a little crazy trying to figure out why honeybees, unlike other bee species, perform an elaborate dance to tell their cohorts where the best flowers are. Biologist James Nieh at the University of California at San Diego thinks he may have finally figured out the puzzling behavior.

Nieh and his colleagues studied two species of tropical bees—the aggressive Trigona spinepes and the more mild-mannered Melipona rufiventris. Both bees use odors to mark a good source of pollen, but sometimes the strategy backfires. Nieh found that the Trigona bees can use the odor markings of the Melipona to find their food source and take it over. If the Melipona put up a fight, the Trigona gang up on them and rip them apart or simply decapitate them.

Nieh speculates that ancestors of today’s honeybees might have adapted by leaving less obvious trails. That would help keep competitors away, he notes, but “you’re providing less information to help your guys at the nest.” Thus the honeybee dance is a great adaptation: It tells hive mates precisely where to find some choice, pollen-rich plants while keeping the information secret from other bees.

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