International understanding in the hive

For the first time, European and Asian bees have joined together to form working families

The prancing bee in the middle of the picture informs her nestmates about a food source or another place that is important for the survival of the people. © Photo from the book "Honeybee Phenomenon" by Jürgen Tautz and Helga R. Heilmann
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The dance language of honey bees is one of the best studied forms of communication in the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, it is always good for surprises: as bee researchers report in the online journal PLOS-one, European and Asian honey bees can communicate with each other, although their dance language differs.

Since the work of the bee researcher Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) it has been known that the members of a bee colony tell each other where they have found new food sources, water collection points or nesting sites. The explorers perform a dance in front of the other collecting bees on the floor, which contains information about the position of the goals. The details are in the so-called Wingtip phase: this part of the bee ballet lasts longer, the farther the target is from the hive.

European honey bees are wagging longer

There are nine species of honeybees worldwide. They separated in the course of evolution from 30 to 50 million years ago and then developed their own dance language dialects. "The content of the messages is the same for all types, but the coding of the messages in the form of the dance languages ​​differs, " says Professor Jürgen Tautz from the BEEgroup of the Biozentrum of the University of Würzburg. For example, European honey bees are significantly shorter than their Asian relatives to communicate identical distances.

These two species, the Asian honey bee Apis cerana and the European honey bee Apis mellifera, are the ones that live geographically farthest from each other. Accordingly, their languages ​​have also diverged.

Recognition scents covered

The Würzburg bee researcher, together with his colleague Songkun Su from Zhejiang University in China and Shaowu Zhang from the Australian National University Canberra, has for the first time succeeded in uniting European and Asian bees into functioning bee colonies. "Many scientists have tried this before us, " says Tautz. So far that was not successful, because foreign bees kill themselves immediately after being locked up. display

"But if you cover the specific recognition fragrances with a third, artificial smell (which can disappear again after a short time) and allow the bees a few days to get used to it, then it works together, " says the scientist.

New approach to behavioral science delivers important results

This new approach to behavioral research has shown as the first result that the two bee species, despite different dance languages, can communicate and exploit food sources together. After a few hours of indulgence, the Asian women follow the teasers of the Europ They interpret and interpret their language correctly. This is recognizable by the fact that they appear exactly at the targets in the landscape that the European bees have indicated to them before.

"The bees' communication system is therefore very adaptable and by no means inflexible, as one would expect for insects, " the researchers conclude. With the help of their mixed bee colony, they now want to explore the limits of this adaptability and its foundations. How much of it is genetically determined, how much is learned? "Mixed people are an ideal tool to address these issues, " Tautz said.

(idw - University W rzburg, 06.06.2008 - DLO)