Friday, June 26, 2009

The intelligence of bees: Meet a beekeeper! Part 2

Michele working the bees
Today, we continue our interview with Michele Bennett Decoteau, beekeeper and author of Blue Hive Journals. (You can read part 1 of the interview here). Our topic today is bee intelligence.

Welcome back, Michele! I've heard that honeybees are intelligent creatures. Earlier this year, Allie Wilkinson at Oh, For the Love Of Science linked to this article, "Honey bees can count to four", describing research from the head of visual neuroscience at University of Queensland. What do you think? Are bees smart?

Bees are really good at being honeybees. Each bee does her job in response to her environment. When a bee [is born and] emerges from her cell, she will begin cleaning out dirty cells within few hours. She will have lots of jobs inside the hive like caring for the young, grooming the queen, and guarding the hive. When she’s reached a certain age, she becomes a forager. This is a really hard job. She needs to find flowers, gather nectar and pollen, and fly home. Then she has to tell her sisters how many flowers [she has located] and how to find them. Sounds simple, but bees are only about an inch long and can find flowers as far away as two miles! That is a tremendously long way to go for such a tiny bug.

Bees use both visual clues (using their eyes) and olfactory cues (smells) to find both flowers and then find home. I have three hives right next to each other and bees don’t go in the wrong one. They know that their home has its own smell that they can follow.

It doesn’t surprise me that bees can count. They use all sorts of clues to find home and to find food. They use the orientation of the sun, they can tell elapsed time (how long they’ve been gone), and they can even use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate. Pretty amazing for a creature smaller than my thumb!

Humans have been using bees for a long time. We love their honey and their wax has special properties as well as a great smell!

I just read an article where bees are being employed in a new way: finding landmines! Just as in the University of Queensland study, scientists have trained bees to associate food (in both cases, sugar water) with other cues. In the Queensland study, they used landmarks. In the military case, they used chemical smells found in land mines. So bees can fly over a field and will hover over areas where a land mine is located.
Michele, that is just fascinating! Honeybees are truly amazing.

Join us next week as we continue our celebration of National Pollinator Week with a discussion with Michele about honeybees and colony collapse disorder (read the next part of this interview here).


If you liked this post, check out:

Meet a beekeeper! Part 1

Meet a beekeeper! Part 3: Colony Collapse Disorder

Meet a beekeeper! Part 4: Learning to keep bees

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Michele Bennett Decoteau (top two photographs); bottom photograph: cygnus921, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


[10/2/09: Updated to include links to complete interview.]


Robert Campbell said...

I have found that bees seem to exhibit a collective intelligence esp in swarm. And I often wonder if they send signals in a language of smell? and if so how sensitive their noses must be right after a good stiff smoking? I sometime help my Dad write Campbells Honey Blog and we both liked your last blog post (because we love reading about other beekeepers). Keep it up!

jublke said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robert! I hope to have Part 3 of my interview with Michele up tomorrow. BTW, I loved the photos posted on your blog for June 11. Do you ever get used to having bees swarm around you like that?

As far as bees exhibiting collective intelligence, I think that's an interesting question. Given the frequency of ants invading my house, I often think about the collective intelligence of ants and how they might communicate (you'll notice a number of ant posts if you hang around here awhile!). How else would an ant new to my house know to run when it sees me coming?