honey bee hive
May 25, 2014

Dancing Bees Show Researchers The Way To The Best Environmental Schemes

Garrett Staas for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Honey bees are able to help promote growth within their environment by spreading pollen and feeding on nectar, and according to a new study, bees are able to dance in order to tell their brethren where the nearest and most pollen rich sources can be found.

Researchers from Europe call it the "waggle dance," which the bees use to convey specific information, including distance and direction, of sources for foraging.

By "eavesdropping" on 5,484 bee waggle dances, the researchers were able to measure the distance needed to travel based on the length of the dance. They then measured the angle of the bee’s dance to determine the direction they should travel. The study area was roughly 94 kilometers, and the best foraging area was found to be Castle Hill, which happened to be the only National Nature Reserve in the area. By using a protractor and a timer, the researchers found that they could collect all this information from the bee’s dance, which typically only lasts a few minutes.

"Imagine the time, manpower, and cost to survey such an area on foot—to monitor nectar sources for quality and quantity of production, to count the number of other flower-visiting insects to account for competition, and then to do this over and over for two foraging years," said Margaret Couvillon of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex, in a Cell Press statement. "Instead, we have let the honeybees do the hard work of surveying the landscape and integrating all relevant costs and then providing, through their dance communication, this biologically relevant information about landscape quality."

[ Watch the Video: Bees On Dandelions ]

During their study, the researchers found that the least visited areas were those at the Organic Entry Level agricultural environment level. These Organic Entry Level schemes must be registered as “fully organic” or “in conversion to organic farming” within England that use only simple land management techniques, including mowing and trimming.

The researchers found that these large areas of land had fewer flowers than other areas. Bees are unable to flourish in these agricultural environment schemes because mowing prevents the flowers from growing, providing the bees with very few sources of food.

"In the past two decades, the European Union has spent €41 billion on agri-environment schemes, which aim to improve the rural landscape health and are required for all EU-member states," Couvillon said. "However, there is little evidence evaluating these schemes. Our work uses a novel source of data—the honeybee, an organism that itself can benefit from a healthy rural landscape—to evaluate not only the environment, but also the schemes used to manage that environment."

This is one of many ways that bees have been utilized to gain an understanding about the environment. Germany is taking steps to analyze bees around airports to check for air pollution and water contamination. Every two years, researchers collect the honey from these bee hives and test the honey for dense metals. They are able to compare the toxin levels to the year before to gain a trend.

Researchers continue to study bees as they seem to be the easiest and fastest way to gain information about the environment. Bees are continuously analyzing and gathering from their environment, so they have become a great, low cost, way of analyzing the impact we have on the environment.

The new research is published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

Image 2 (below): This is an image of dancing bees. Credit: Dr. Roger Schürch