Are bees really busy?
By the time I left university I was heartily sick of bees. I had studied Virgil’s fourth book of the Georgics at both A level and degree level and could pretty much tell you everything the poet knew about the blessed pollinators. Not that I have anything against them per se – and in our garden we cultivate plants especially to attract them – but at the time enough was enough.
Virgil’s thesis was that bees are like human society – they work, are devoted to a king and are willing to die for a cause. Over the millennia they have gained a reputation for being industrious – as busy as a bee is a popular idiom still in vogue. But is this reputation well-deserved?
Where bees forage, workers can make up to 100 foraging trips a day but their activities cease at sun down. Other bees whose responsibilities include tending the honeycombs and cooling the nest work around the clock but also take frequent breaks. Drones, on the other hand, don’t leave the hive until early afternoon and rely on other bees to feed them.
Some research conducted by the University of Illinois sheds some light on how busy bees are. Five honeybee colonies were used in the experiments – three in natural outdoor areas and the other two in special screened enclosures. Each hive was equipped with pairs of laser scanners at the entrances and between 100 and 300 workers from each colony were tagged with tiny micro-transponders which enabled the scanners to tag their IDs, direction of travel and time of day.
After a couple of months data gathering the scientists saw that a small proportion of the bees, around 20%, were much busier than the rest, accounting for up to 50% of all the recorded flight activity. These busy bees began making flights as soon as the colony became active each morning and made regular, closely spaced flights throughout the day until the colony called a halt to its flight activities in the evening.
These busy bees, though, weren’t always busy and the levels of their activity peaked and troughed over the course of their lifetimes and the experiment. This observation encouraged the scientists to wonder whether their industriousness wasn’t an innate response but rather was adaptive. In other words, did the bees adapt their work patterns to prevailing conditions and would those bees who were less energetic adapt their ways in the absence of the busy bees?
Cunningly, the researchers lurked at the entrances to the enclosed hives at peak foraging time and captured all the bees that arrived there. When they looked at the flight records of the bees they had captured the majority were in the top 20% of the workforce.
For the rest of that day activity at the feeders was quiet but the following day activity had resumed at normal levels. Some of the bees that had been taking it easy because of the endeavours of the busy bees up their activity levels by up to 500%. The scientists concluded that there isn’t a sharp divide in the hive between workers and slackers but that each worker keeps a check on the overall activity of the colony and adjusts their own endeavours to ensure that the overall needs of the colony are met.
Perhaps Virgil’s simile that bees reflect human society is more spot on that I thought. Bees aren’t busy per se but like humans do enough to get by.
So now we know!