Do you remember wishing you could speak to animals when you were a kid? It appears that dream can come true, as researchers at the LASI Bee Research & Outreach center have proven that learning the language of the honeybee's waggle dance can serve as a useful research tool.
Bees communicate in which direction they have found rich sources of pollen to their comrades in the angles of the waggle dance. The duration of the dance indicates the distance to the treasure. Scientists can actually measure these parameters and create a set of data points that coalesce into clouds of higher density in the areas where the bees have enjoyed the best flowers.
The bees surveyed over 94 square kilometers (36 square miles) of land during their communal foraging. Margaret Couvillon of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex puts that in perspective:
Imagine the time, manpower, and cost to survey such an area on foot -- to monitor nectar sources for quality and quantity of production, to count the number of other flower-visiting insects to account for competition, and then to do this over and over for two foraging years. Instead, we have let the honeybees do the hard work of surveying the landscape and integrating all relevant costs and then providing, through their dance communication, this biologically relevant information about landscape quality.
It turns out that bees really do prefer nature preserves, a finding which can help justify the economic expenditure of maintaining some land free from agricultural use. In an interesting twist, bees found little to love in rural tracts being converted to organic farming techniques. The team hypothesizes that the intensive mowing required to control unwanted plants during the conversion period reduces the pollen producing plant density as well.
This breakthrough expands the utility of bees in environmental research. For example, scientists have monitored chemicals in bees' honey as an indicator of air pollution and bees' venom in detectors for airport security.
If there was any doubt about the importance of bees for their pollination services alone, these many amazing feats should leave no one in doubt that we must do everything in our power to improve bee habitat, reduce pesticide poisonings, and stop the colony collapse disorder to save these useful insects.
Maybe now the bees can help save themselves -- if only enough people can listen in as they waggle dance!
The paper is published this month in Current Biology.