A high-speed camera reveals a new behavior of honey bees

A blog post highlighting the article by S. Łopuch & A. Tofilski in Insectes Sociaux

By Sylwia Łopuch and Adam Tofilski

 

The behavior of honey bees (Apis mellifera) still contains a plethora of mysteries. After many decades of research, bee communication is still not entirely understood. Efficient communication is particularly important for social insects such as honey bees because a single colony consists of tens of thousands of bees that need to cooperate to survive.

A high-speed camera may be beneficial to the study of social insect communication because it can record thousands of frames per second. As a result, high-speed video recording lets us see details that are undetectable to a human eye.

Observations of a few colonies of honey bees with the use of a high-speed camera revealed that the bees moved their wings in temporal and behavioral patterns within the nest. We housed colonies in observation hives (which consisted of two frames with bees placed behind glass walls) and recorded the bees’ behavior. The wings remained motionless most of the time. However, occasionally bees with folded wings performed a few wing beats. Interestingly, this behavior was observed not only in workers but also in queens and drones. The wing movements were detected most often during the swarming season (the reproduction period for honey bees). The queens performed this wing behavior only at that time. Similarly, drones vibrated their wings only during preparation for mating flights and when they were evicted from the nest by workers. The wing movements were observed most often in workers, which moved them both during the swarming season and outside of it (video). Workers moved their wings when they were in contact with a queen or another worker, including workers returning to the nest with food (pollen or nectar) and those guarding the nest entrance.

Our observation that the honey bees moved their wings when they were in contact with other bees led us to assume that the function of the wing movements is related to communication. We also recorded wing movements of dancing bees. Workers perform the waggle dance when they find an attractive source of food. After they return to the nest after foraging, they dance to transfer information to other nestmates about the location of the food source. It is possible that frequency of wing beats (the number of wing beats per second) and duration of episodes of wing beating transfer some information because these metrics significantly differed in queens, drones, and workers. The characteristics of the wing movements also depended on temporal context, differing in the swarming and non-swarming seasons. Therefore, wing movements may support communication based on vibrations in the darkness of nests where visual cues are ineffective.

In conclusion, high-speed video recording allows us to observe unknown behaviors of honey bees like wing movements and help us better understand their meaning.

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