, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 265-272

The regulation of pollen foraging by honey bees: how foragers assess the colony's need for pollen

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The honey bee colony presents a challenging paradox. Like an organism, it functions as a coherent unit, carefully regulating its internal milieu. But the colony consists of thousands of loosely assembled individuals each functioning rather autonomously. How, then, does the colony acquire the necessary information to organize its work force? And how do individuals acquire information about specific colony needs, and thus know what tasks need be performed? I address these questions through experiments that analyze how honey bees acquire information about the colony's need for pollen and how they regulate its collection. The results demonstrate features of the colony's system for regulating pollen foraging: (1) Pollen foragers quickly acquire new information about the colony's need for pollen. (2) When colony pollen stores are supplemented, many pollen foragers respond by switching to nectar foraging or by remaining in the hive and ceasing to forage at all. (3) Pollen foragers do not need direct contact with pollen to sense the colony's change of state, nor do they use the odor of pollen as a cue to assess the colony's need for pollen. (4) Pollen foragers appear to obtain their information about colony pollen need indirectly from other bees in the hive. (5) The information takes the form of an inhibitory cue. The proposed mechanism for the regulation of pollen foraging involves a hierarchical system of information acquisition and a negative feedback loop. By taking advantage of the vast processing capacity of large numbers of individuals working in parallel, such a system of information acquisition and dissemination may be ideally suited to promote efficient regulation of labor within the colony. Although each individual relies on only limited, local information, the colony as a whole achieves a finely-tuned response to the changing conditions it experiences.