, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 51-62

Honey bee foragers as sensory units of their colonies

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Abstract

Forager honey bees function not only as gatherers of food for their colonies, but also as sensory units shaped by natural selection to gather information regarding the location and profitability of forage sites. They transmit this information to colony members by means of waggle dances. To investigate the way bees transduce the stimulus of nectar-source profitability into the response of number of waggle runs, I performed experiments in which bees were stimulated with a sucrose solution feeder of known profitability and their dance responses were videorecorded. The results suggest that several attributes of this transduction process are adaptations to enhance a bee's effectiveness in reporting on a forage site. (1) Bees register the profitability of a nectar source not by sensing the energy gain per foraging trip or the rate of energy gain per trip, but evidently by sensing the energetic efficiency of their foraging. Perhaps this criterion of nectar-source profitability has been favored by natural selection because the foraging gains of honey bees are typically limited by energy expenditure rather than time availability. (2) There is a linear relationship between the stimulus of energetic efficiency of foraging and the response of number of waggle runs per dance. Such a simple stimulus-response function appears adequate because the range of suprathreshold stimuli (max/min ratio of about 10) is far smaller than the range of responses (max/min ratio of about 100). Although all bees show a linear stimulus-response function, there are large differences among individuals in both the response threshold and the slope of the stimulus-response function. This variation gives the colony a broader dynamic range in responding to food sources than if all bees had identical thresholds of dance response. (3) There is little or no adaptation in the dance response to a strong stimulus (tonic response). Thus each dancing bee reports on the current level of profitability of her forage site rather than the changes in its profitability. This seems appropriate since presumably it is the current profitability of a forage site, not the change in its profitability, which determines a site's attractiveness to other bees. (4) The level of forage-site quality that is the threshold for dancing is tuned by the bees in relation to forage availability. Bees operate with a lower dance threshold when forage is sparse than when it is abundant. Thus a colony utilizes input about a wide range of forage sites when food is scarce, but filters out input about low-reward sites when food is plentiful. (5) A dancing bee does not present her information in one spot within the hive but instead distributes it over much of the dance floor. Consequently, the dances for different forage sites are mixed together on the dance floor. This helps each bee following the dances to take a random sample of the dance information, which is appropriate for the foraging strategy of a honey bee colony since it is evidently designed to allocate foragers among forage sites in proportion to their profitability.