Topic Challenge: The Social Lives of Bees

(Read more about the Topic Challenge when we've gotten to the bottom of this)

Bees are fascinating. We look at a bee hive and see hundreds of identical bees, scurrying and flying about in more or less random manners. But upon closer inspection it's not really random, and they're not really identical.

Bees Shake Their Booties and Wings

Foraging bees have a way to recruit more bees to fetch from ample food sources. But they don't just go back into the hive and shout "Hey everyone! Follow me!", because that would be too simple (or not simple at all for someone without vocal cords, I guess).

Nope. Much like drunk teenagers they'll instead stumble into any group and dance weirdly in hope of being accepted in the in-crowd. Much unlike drunk teenagers there's actually a pattern to the dance.

First of all they have three different dances depending on the distance from the hive to the food source. One for 0-50 meters, one for 50-150 meters and a third for any distance above that. A portion of the third dance includes running in a straight line, and the length of that line actually conveys a more exact distance. The line increases roughly linearly with the increase in distance:

For example, a forager that performs a waggle run that lasts 2.5 seconds is recruiting for a food source located approximately 2625 meters away.

- "The Honey Bee Dance Language", NC State University

My first thought when reading that was "holy cow! That's far!" I know humans who'd never imagine walking that far to do some grocery shopping. Dang, bees, you're really committed!

The second component of the dance is to show the direction of the food source. Bees have neither a compass, clock, gps, or map. But they do have eyes, and eyes can watch a dance, and when the bee moments later go outside its eyes can watch the sun. And that's the truly brilliant part of this! If the food source is in the current direction of the sun, the dance will be performed in an upwards direction (bee hives are vertically built, after all). If it's to the left of the sun's direction it will be performed towards the left. The dancing bee has essentially conveyed a horizontal direction on a vertical plane. Without any college-level courses in linear algebra.

This much of the dance language has been proven in the coolest way possible: by building a robot bee that dances. I wonder if the robot bee performed a robot dance version of it...

Anyhow, that doesn't get the bees all the way there. Point them in a direction and distance and they'll gleefully fly there only to go "huh? What now?" upon arriving. Screw you, robot prankster!

The missing component is smell. A bee that has really been to said food source will smell of it. Its pals will therefore fly the conveyed direction and distance, and then smell their way the last few meters. If someone tells me to go to the grocery store and buy one thing I'll inevitably forget what it was by the time I get there and come home with three completely different things that seemed like a good idea at the time. And then it turns out the cat is picky and looks at me condescendingly for picking the wrong brand of cat food. (I'm sorry, Emma.)

Some Bees More Equal Than Others

Remember how I said that bees aren't identical? Turns out some of them are more popular than others, and it has to do with perceived wealth. "Wealth," you say, "In the Socialist Queendom of the Great Hive?"

A measurement of inequality in human societies is the Gini coefficient. A version of this can be applied to bees as well, using foraging activity as a component. The better you are at foraging, the longer other bees want to stay and chat. And by chat I really mean suck your mouth in an act of sharing fluids. Like humans, except the bees' fluids are food.

Frank, Are You Wearing That After Shave Again?

Since bees aren't big with words (see above point about vocal cords) they're not really big on pickup lines either. Nor on gossip or bullying. But the queen bee is sort of the ultimate alpha chick either way. She actually emits a smell, in the form of pheromones, that make the other female bees complacent to mating. They just don't want to. ("Oh, no, Cherry-Blossom. That Frank guy isn't interested in you. In fact you're not interested in him, either. M'kay, sweetie?" Gaslighting, much?)

Apart from that she also emits a smell that makes the male drones (her own harem of Abercrombie & Bee dudes) all horny and happy. I mean, y'know, "encourages them to mate with her" as it were.

You're aware that a honey bee loses its stinger and dies after just one use, right? The ultimate kamikaze pilot. But around the hive it's never alone. As it stings it releases another pheromone that alerts the other bees that danger is around. All for one, one for all, baby.


"Unexpected similarity between honey bee and human social life", University of Illinois.

"The Honey Bee Dance Language", NC State University.

"How Honey Bees Communicate", ThoughtCo.

Topic Challenge?

I was feeling like I was treading water a little and mostly going through the same topics over and over again, both in my mind and my blog/gemlog. And it can be hard to just find a way out of your comfort zone just to see something else.

So I went onto the IRC channel #gemini at irc.tilde.chat and semi-randomly declared that palm93 should give me a topic which I had to do some research and write a post about.

This has been a super fun experience, and I greatly recommend you to do the same. Pick someone from your circle of friends, or better yet a stranger on the internet, and say "I want to write about a topic that is unfamiliar to me. Will you please decide what? I promise to give it a good few hours of research and a serious write-up."

I would never in a thousand years have come up with the idea of writing about honey bees communication methods myself, but it was really, really fun. Mostly any topic is interesting when you dive into it.

By the way, checkout palm93's capsule!

-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal