Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows

Date:
June 16, 2007
Source:
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Summary:
A new finding by an undergraduate scientist and a senior bee researcher gives new insight on the organization of honeybee colonies, which exhibit behavior rivaling human cultures in social complexity. The study reveals that major colony management activities are directed anonymously by hive workers using a nonspecific signal that modulates worker and queen behavior, and may have implications important for understanding other complex phenomena, from brain activity to terrorist networks.

Using an ingeniously designed experiment, Pierce and his co-authors were able to document details of bee social behavior that fundamentally confirm the hypothesis that major colony activities are initiated by the cumulative group actions of the colony's older workers, not by the queen's individual decision.
Credit: iStockphoto/Simon Smith

Undergraduate education generally involves acquiring "received knowledge" -- in other words, absorbing the past discoveries of scholars and scientists. But University of North Carolina at Charlotte senior biology major Andrew Pierce went beyond the textbooks and uncovered something previously unknown.

Related Articles


Pierce's discovery has to do with detecting a significant new detail concerning the behavior of the European honeybee -- perhaps the most studied and economically important insect on Earth. Beyond agriculture, the finding may also have key implications for understanding the dynamics of all social animals, including man.

Pierce's recently reported his research in an article appearing in the behavioral biology research journal Ethology, with co-authors Lee Lewis and UNC Charlotte biology professor Stanley Schneider, Pierce's mentor. Pierce was first author on the paper -- a rare achievement for an undergraduate.

"It was a very good work and an impressive achievement for a student researcher -- he got a publication as an undergraduate," Schneider noted. "I really like working with our undergraduate honors students -- they are so bright."

Pierce, age 22, has been working as a researcher in Schneider's lab for the past two years through a UNC Charlotte Honors College program that fosters research experiences for undergraduates.

Using an ingeniously designed experiment, Pierce and his co-authors were able to document details of bee social behavior that fundamentally confirm the hypothesis that major colony activities are initiated by the cumulative group actions of the colony's older workers, not by the queen's individual decision.

What Pierce and colleagues found was that older workers gave signals to the queen and to the rest of the colony that it was time to swarm and leave the hive. Later, they were able to observe inside the swarm itself and see workers give the queen a signal, known as "piping" that tells her to fly.

"Researchers have never reported worker piping being done on the queen before, so some of what we found was exciting," Pierce said. "It was generally surprising to see the level of interaction that the older bees have with the queen. This doesn't normally happen in the hive," he noted.

"It's interesting because it shows that though the queen has a tremendous impact on the colony, she's not the decision maker," Schnieder said. "The colony is not a dominance hierarchy and, from a human perspective, this is unusual. Our human society is very dominance hierarchy structured --we have centralized systems of control. But bee colony systems of control are very different -- they are totally de-centralized."

Schneider's lab studies the honeybee and its behavioral ecology. Like humans, honeybees are remarkable for living in large organized groups where highly developed social behaviors coordinate the efforts of thousands of individuals to accomplish complex tasks -- manufacturing, community defense, environmental control and maintenance, food production, brood-rearing and education. Like human civilizations, bee societies follow organizational principles, such as following social rules (like human customs and laws) and division of labor.

But here the similarity ends. Bees do not have large brains and are not capable of complex thought like humans. Though the bee colony is centered around the queen and her reproductive capabilities, findings by Schneider and others indicates that she does not exactly "rule." Instead, the colony appears to be controlled by the anonymous consensus of the colony's workers.

Though it is of great interest to researchers studying social behavior, a great mystery still remains regarding how bee societies effectively direct and coordinate complex operations without a central controlling intelligence. Pierce's finding is part of an ongoing research effort in Schneider's lab aimed at understanding the mechanisms of leaderless societal management -- in particular, the importance of two communication-related behaviors known as the "vibration signal" and "worker piping."

Different from the famous "waggle dance" that foraging worker bees perform to tell other bees where to find a food source, the vibration signal appears to be a more general, multi-purpose form of communication. Schneider has concluded that this signal, which consists of one bee grabbing another bee (worker or queen) and then vibrating its body, does not convey a specific message, but instead is a form of "modulatory communication" that alters existing bee behaviors (making bees perform their jobs more actively, perhaps) or changes bees response to other signals.

Pierce and Schneider have documented in their current paper how workers use the vibration signal to prepare the queen for swarming by making intrusions into her "court" and vibrating her hundreds of times an hour. She responds by changing her behavior -- reducing her food intake, slowing egg laying and becoming more active. At this point, the workers begin to send a second signal that researchers call "worker piping" at a fevered pitch. Piping, which consists of bees making contact and vibrating their wing muscles rapidly, appears to be a general instruction to fly.

The researchers document that the workers stop using the vibration signal when the queen flies and leaves the nest with the swarm. Piping, however, continues in the swarm, as the bees need to make the queen fly again once a new nest site has been selected.

"Drew Pierce did this project last summer," Schneider explained. "We constructed a special observation stand where we could actually see how workers were interacting with queens inside a swarm cluster, where they are hanging in a tree. That was really interesting, because nobody had ever really been able to look at that before," he noted.

"What was interesting was how little attention the workers pay the queen -- until it became time to go -- to become airborne. Then they started interacting with her at very high rates, and performing the 'worker piping' signal on her. This interaction is a behavior that nobody had described before," Schneider said.

Contrary to the popular conception of a colony controlled by instructions from its breeding queen mother, the research shows a picture of the queen as a passive egg layer whose own behavior is programmed, with changes dictated by signals delivered by older workers.

This does not mean, however, that the colony is controlled by a key group of experienced bees either. The worker bees that deliver the critical signals have short life-spans and tiny brains incapable of managing the colony the way a human village might be managed by a council of elders. Instead, critical strategic choices, such as the assessment that it is time to divide the colony and swarm, appear to be decided by the dynamics of the group itself. Social interactions, environmental pressures or group dynamics in some still-unknown way initiate a string of behaviors that effectively manage complex group activities.

"It is a real challenge to understand how bee colonies work, but it is also fascinating because they are so different. Evolutionarily, they got to the same point as humans -- living in these highly organized societies that function with remarkable efficiency -- but they are organized so differently when you start digging into them," Schneider said. "It's interesting that these major differences can result in the same emergent social properties. It may tell us something about ourselves."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 June 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070611154001.htm>.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte. (2007, June 16). Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070611154001.htm
University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070611154001.htm (accessed December 22, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Monday, December 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Christmas Kissing Good for Health

Christmas Kissing Good for Health

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Dec. 22, 2014) Scientists in Amsterdam say couples transfer tens of millions of microbes when they kiss, encouraging healthy exposure to bacteria. Suzannah Butcher reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Brain-Dwelling Tapeworm Reveals Genetic Secrets

Brain-Dwelling Tapeworm Reveals Genetic Secrets

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Dec. 22, 2014) Cambridge scientists have unravelled the genetic code of a rare tapeworm that lived inside a patient's brain for at least four year. Researchers hope it will present new opportunities to diagnose and treat this invasive parasite. Matthew Stock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Fish Species Discovered, Setting Record for World's Deepest

New Fish Species Discovered, Setting Record for World's Deepest

Buzz60 (Dec. 22, 2014) A new species of fish is discovered living five miles beneath the ocean surface, making it the deepest living fish on earth. Jen Markham has the story. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Earthworms Provide Cancer-Fighting Bacteria

Earthworms Provide Cancer-Fighting Bacteria

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Dec. 21, 2014) Polish scientists isolate bacteria from earthworm intestines which they say may be used in antibiotics and cancer treatments. Suzannah Butcher reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins