Like children, who have the innate ability to speak, bees carry in their genes the dance with which they notify the hive that they have found food.
But, like little humans, who need to be taught to speak properly, the young workers need the veteran foragers to teach them how to dance well.
Now, a group of entomologists has discovered that, without the example of their elders, honey bees are incapable of transmitting the distance at which new flowers are.
This would indicate that these insects socially learn (like humans) a language on which their survival depends.
Just a century ago, the Austrian biologist Karl Ritter von Frisch (father of ethology, the study of animal behavior) discovered that bees danced before their hive mates.
The best thing is that this dance contained the instructions to reach a new field of flowers found by the explorer.
Direction, distance, relative position of the Sun, amount of food... all this information was encoded in the movement of the bee.
Many colleagues made fun of von Frisch.
In the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, to maintain that insects had enough brains to store such complex spatial information and, even more, to be able to communicate it with a symbolic language, would deserve scientific anathema.
But in the decades that followed, other entomologists confirmed what he had discovered.
Half a century after his discovery and with 87 years behind him, in 1973, the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in Physiology for deciphering the dance of bees.
As if it were a tribute, now it is discovered that these hymenopterous insects use social learning to master this language.
After years of meticulous observation, Von Fisch understood that when a forager bee discovered a new source of food (or water, propolis, or a new place to migrate) it began a dance already in the hive whose details depend on the characteristics of the bee. discovered resource.
The bees have different dances depending on how far away the loot is.
The most complex is interpreted when it is found from 150 meters.
Then there is what is called the dance of the eight (see video).
The explorer performs a succession of movements that seem to draw him.
In the straight areas of the drawing, she bends her abdomen at high speed.
Well, the distance to the pollen and the desired nectar is written in the duration of that wiggle in the line.
The more seconds it lasts, the further away they are.
But in what direction?
To indicate it,
the bee performs the straight part of the dance at an angle that, related to the position of the sun, corresponds to the correct orientation towards the flowers.
The repetition of the dance fulfills, among other functions, that of qualifying the finding.
The more repetitions, the more flowers.
“The accuracy varies depending on the distance to the food source.
The further away the food source is, the more precise the dance will be.”
James Nieh, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego
“Accuracy varies depending on the distance to the food source and the surface the bee is dancing on.
The further away the food source is, the more accurate the dance will be.
When the dance floor is less uniform, it is less precise”, explains James Nieh, a biologist at the University of California in San Diego (United States).
Together with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nieh created five colonies with some 2,800 bees.
They had all been collected while still in the pupal stage and transplanted into other hives, each with its own queen, but no veteran mates.
They did the same with another similar amount, but accompanied by already mature specimens and they marked dozens of them with a marker.
At just over 150 meters they placed a series of containers with sucrose dissolved in water.
The bees live about 35 days and their first flight in search of food is made around nine days.
As published in the magazine
, found that both the bees in the experimental and control hives danced after finding the sweetener.
This confirms that bees have dance marked in their genes.
But while the bees that had never seen experienced foragers dance danced haphazardly, poorly conveying both distance and location, those on the control combs communicated information with great precision.
This discovery suggests that, although the ability to dance is genetic, doing it well depends on social learning, that is, on the individual learning by observing or interacting with others.
"Social learning had already been demonstrated in bees and ants, but never [the acquisition] of a natural animal language with this degree of complexity such as the dance of bees," explains Nieh.
"Already older and with experience, they significantly reduced angle errors and performed more orderly dances"
Shihao Dong, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, China
When 20 days had passed, they went back to studying their dance.
The authors hoped that the dance would improve with experience.
What they observed is recounted by Shihao Dong, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (China) and first author of the study: "Already older and with experience in following the dance and in the dance itself, they significantly reduced angle errors and performed more orderly dances”.
However, Ken Tan, an entomologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior author of these experiments, adds: “They were never able to correct their distance errors.
They continued to pass it, reporting greater distances than normal.
All the bees that had no one to learn from reported the location of the sucrose further away than the canisters actually were.
“Why is this interesting to scientists?
The answer may lie in how distance communication could be adapted to local conditions," adds Tan.
The fixation of knowledge in the genes has an advantage, there is no risk that the next generation will lose it.
But it has a great disadvantage, its rigidity and invariability.
“There can be big differences in where the food is in different environments.
As a result, the various species of bees have developed different
Tan explains. They can even vary within the same species.
"Researchers suspect that this variation is due to the fact that colonies, even of the same species, can live in very different environments," adds the Chinese scientist, who ends by highlighting the relevance of social learning: "If learning a language is a way to cope with different environments, then perhaps each colony has a dialect over distance adapted to its location and passed down from experienced to novice bees.
If so, our bees deprived of teachers may never have corrected their mistakes because they acquired, on their own, a different dialect of distance."
“The various species of bees have developed different
Ken Tan, entomologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
The social learning of behaviors or languages as complex as the dance of bees is not exclusive to them.
Just this week, another group of entomologists demonstrated how bumblebees can solve puzzles.
The authors of the study, published in
, trained several of them to solve a puzzle (of two pieces), after which there was a very sweet prize.
Once they knew how to solve it, they paired them up with other bumblebees.
Seeing how they got sucrose, 98% of them repeated what was done by the veterans.
Lars Chittka, an entomologist at Queen Mary University of London, is the senior author on the bumblebee paper.
Chittka, who has studied social learning (and teaching) in other eusocial insects, such as ants and bees, recalls that there are many behaviors that these animals acquire through social interaction.
On the dance of bees, the author of the book
The mind of a bee
The mind of a bee
, not yet translated into Spanish), highlights that the new study "shows that the degree to which it is fixed [in the genes] may be less than previously assumed" and adds: "if bees can learn to calibrate the coding from dance to dance from individual experience, this gives them much more flexibility and plasticity in communicating various resources and habitat types.”
A century ago, Von Frisch, the discoverer of the bee dance, did not mention in his work whether they learned it or inherited it.
“I think he would be very pleased if researchers from all over the world continue his work,” says Nieh, one of the researchers who 100 years later have shown that bees learn such a complex language from their older companions.
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