You’ve probably seen enough B-rated movies where evil scientists genetically modify bees to turn them into smart bees, albeit for nefarious purposes. Even famed sci-fi series The X Files included bees on the list of sophisticated weapons used by The Syndicate to spread a deadly virus in the standalone movie Fight the Future.
But the truth is that honey bees are smart on their own, without needing intervention from us. And they play a crucial role in our lives, as well. You may think that their primary contribution to human wellbeing is honey, or royal jelly, or propolis. Actually, the most prominent service they do to us is pollination.
What Is Pollination and Why Is It So Important?
Animal species do not need outside intervention to reproduce. A male and a female mate and the result is a fertilized egg that grows into another member of the species. For plants and trees, things are more complicated. Flowers have male and female reproductive organs, but they cannot achieve reproduction without help.
Thanks to honeybees who carry out pollination. The pollen, which is the male reproductive element that honey bees carry from one flower to another and spread on the pistil (the female reproductive organ). And this is how we get fruit, vegetables, legumes, and cereals.
Without pollination, none of the plants would bear fruit, and they would eventually die out as species. And, in turn, we would find ourselves massively deprived of the most important and nutritious food groups.
Can We Call Them Smart Bees Just for This Activity?
To be fair, the answer is yes. Humans have already tried to develop tiny drones that perform pollination, with limited results.
A team of researchers used a bee-sized drone to try and pollinate bamboo lilies (Lilium japonicum).
The drone, carefully programmed and trained, managed to pick only 41% of the pollen in three runs and successfully pollinated 53 out of the total sample of 100 bamboo lily flowers.
Honey bees achieve better results without any kind of training. We can say that this is their instinct, as pollen is their basic food. But looking at the behavior of families of bees, it becomes clear that these are smart insects. They pass information from one member to another; thus, young bees are taught how to find and collect pollen, just like children are taught how to read and write in school.
Moreover, bees coordinate their pollen harvesting work, share information within their family group, and have an exact social ranking system. This seems incredible, given their tiny brain. However, the honey bee brains compensate for size in density.
The brain of honeybees is 10 times denser than the brain of mammal species.
What Key Abilities Show Us that Honey Bees Are Smart?
Collective knowledge from beekeepers and research studies indicated that:
• Honey bees have excellent visual skills – they can see ultraviolet and polarized light;
• They can learn and remember colors and landmarks;
• Honey bees can tell the difference between various landscapes (fields, hills, mountains, forests), flowers, patterns, and shapes;
• They can distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous fungi;
• Honey bees can remember a route of up to 6 miles in length for several days;
• They can create a map of the area they have flown over and selected the shortest distance between two points.
Looking at all the skills above, we may say that honey bees are even smarter than humans in some ways. We all wish we could memorize a route and not get lost (thankfully, we have GPS devices). And doctors would have less work to do if people didn’t eat poisonous fungi and mushrooms by mistaking them for edible ones.
Social Roles In The Beehive
Also, along their lives, honey bees take on various social roles in the beehive. Each of these roles needs a different set of skills.
- For instance, young bees act as nurses feeding the young during their pupa and larva phases.
- As they mature, they move on to the role of building honeycombs with mathematical precision (each comb has the shape of a perfect hexagon).
- Later on, they become harvesters and collect pollen to feed the entire hive.
Really, How Smart Are Honey Bees?
Let us now focus on some of the findings that researchers have determined as proof of intelligence in smart bees. These are:
1. The Ability to Think and Calculate
Honey bees can plan, learn, and apply their learning in a real-life situation. For instance, they know the types of flowers that are a good source of pollen. Once they reach an individual flower, they quickly assess how rich it is in pollen and whether it is worth the effort to try and harvest from it.
Thus, what to you and I appears as random flying over flowers is actually a planned and thought route, where the honey bee makes decisions and chooses the flowers that are richest in pollen.
2. The Dancing of the Bees
This is a fascinating form of communication, one that doesn’t stop amazing beekeepers and scientists alike. The way bees coordinate their individual movements, and the movements of the group as a whole show intelligence, purpose, and a higher level of communication skills.
The bees perform different types of dances:
• The Round Dance
This is the simplest type of bee dances. A group of bees forms a circle to indicate to other members of the hive that there is a rich source of food nearby;
• The Waggle Dance
This individual dance proves advanced native intelligence. When a bee has found a source of food at some distance from the hive, it starts walking in a straight line, indicating the direction of the food source relative to the position of the sun. Next, it starts dancing at an angle, swaying its body, indicating the precise position of the food source. The number of waggles the honey bee performs indicates the distance from the hive.
You can see a waggle dance here on this YouTube video.
• The Tremble Dance
When a honey bee has returned with a full load of pollen but has to wait until it can unload it, then it will start shaking its body back and forth and rotating its axis by around 50 degrees every second. This dance alerts other harvester bees to wait until they can go and collect more pollen and brings more workers to the unloading area of the honeycombs;
• The Sickle Dance
Performed in an 8 shape, this individual dance alerts other bees in the family that a source of nectar is available nearby, but not very close to the hive.
3. Communication by Pheromones
Bees also use pheromones (chemicals produced by the body that affects the behavior of other members of the species) to share information, keep order in the hive and even socialize.
The queen bee produces a unique pheromone, called “the queen substance” that regulates life inside the hive. Once a worker bee has received the queen substance, it cannot produce or rear another queen been. This actually works as a form of birth control.
However, it can also act as an aphrodisiac.
A queen bee that has never mated before (a virgin queen, let’s call her) emits queen substance to attract male bees.
Other pheromones that bees can produce are used as a warning in case of an attack on the hive, to encourage a bee to turn from hive worker into a harvester, etc.
Honey bees are some of the smartest insects on our planet. They are social beings, with a very strict hierarchy in the hive. They further the wellbeing of their family by cooperation and acting as a united front against enemies. We can surely learn a few lessons from these smart bees – one of them is to be more tolerant with each other and help our society to grow and become a better place for everyone.
What else do you think we can learn from bees? Share your ideas in the comments below.