Bees Use Sign Language to Give Hornets the Finger

Tony Hisgett/CC BY 2.0

From waging war with rival colonies to cleaning house of dead bees and debris, honeybees do some amazing things. Perhaps most amazing is their ability to communicate with each other using a "waggle dance" as sign language, but it turns out that they don't just communicate with other bees.

The BBC reports on new research that suggests honeybees also send "sign language" signals to predators, warning would-be raiding hornets that they have been spotted and they'd better back off. Coolest of all is the fact that these signals actually work! More from the BBC:

Researchers already knew of this "characteristic shaking signal", in which all the guards bees simultaneously vibrate their abdomens from side-to-side for a few seconds when a hornet approaches the colony. In the wild, this produces a spectacular "Mexican wave" of vibrating bees.

This study, carried out on a small bee hive, revealed the hornets (Vespa velutina) responded directly to the bees' shaking signal. Warned wasps would retreat from the colony and try to catch bees in flight instead. To find this out, the researchers tethered live hornets to lengths of wire and held them at a variety of distances from the hive entrance. The closer the tethered hornet was held to the hive, the more intensely the bee guards shook their bodies. To confirm that the bees were specifically "talking to" the hornets with this signal, the team carried out the same tethering experiment with a harmless butterfly species (Papilio xuthus).

Head over to the BBC for more on how bees "talk" with hornets to warn them off. If only they could warn off farmers spraying neonicotinoids too...

Tags: Australia | Bees | Biology | Insects

2014 Gift Guide