Skip to main content

Larger but not louder: bigger honey bee colonies have quieter combs

Abstract

Communication is impossible if the sender’s signal cannot overcome background noise to reach the receiver. This obstacle is present in all communication modalities, forcing organisms to develop diverse mechanisms to overcome noise. Honey bees will modify combs to improve signal efficiency of substrate-borne vibrations, but it is unknown whether, and if so, how, bees compensate for the largest potential source of noise: the bees themselves. The number of bees in a colony changes markedly throughout the year, but the size of the nest cavity does not, forcing workers into high densities on the combs. How, then, do bees communicate via substrate-borne vibrations on combs that are covered in bees? We used accelerometers to measure comb vibrations, while varying the number of workers on the comb. Surprisingly, comb vibrations decreased with increased worker number. Furthermore, inserting freshly killed bees to the comb demonstrated that it is not simply the bees’ collective mass that damps vibrations, but is probably their behavior. We propose that their posture damps vibrations, with each bee linking up to six neighboring cells with her legs. This collective damping reduces background noise and improves the landscape for communication. These results demonstrate how living systems, including superorganisms, can overcome physical obstacles with curiously simple and elegant solutions.

Significance statement

Background noise is a pervasive problem in communication. Honey bees must address this problem because thousands of individuals occupy and communicate within a single nest made of beeswax combs. While it is known that bees use beeswax comb vibrations to communicate, it is unknown how they overcome background noise when the combs become covered in bees. We show that comb vibrations decrease, not increase, as the number of bees on the comb increases. This unexpected result is not due to bees’ mass, but rather their interactions with the comb that damps vibrations. By reducing background vibrations, workers make the comb “quieter” and improve the substrate for communication. Therefore, we show that the communication landscape for sending signals within the superorganism is improved, not hindered, as the colony grows.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

References

  1. Bates D, Maechler M, Bolker B, Walker S (2015) Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. J Stat Softw 67:1–48

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bencsik M, Le Conte Y, Reyes M, Pioz M, Whittaker D, Crauser D, Simon-Delso N, Newton MI (2015) Honeybee colony vibrational measurements to highlight the brood cycle. PLoS One 10:e0141926

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Charif RA, Waack AM, Strickman LM (2010) Raven Pro 1.4 user’s manual. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

  4. Cocroft RB (1996) Insect vibrational defense signals. Nature 382:679–680

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Cocroft RB, Rodríguez RL (2005) The behavioral ecology of insect vibrational communication. Bioscience 55:323–334

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Gordon SD, Uetz GW (2011) Multimodal communication of wolf spiders on different substrates: evidence for behavioural plasticity. Anim Behav 81:367–375

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Hunt JH, Richard FJ (2013) Intracolony vibroacoustic communication in social insects. Insect Soc 60:403–417

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Kirchner WH (1993) Acoustical communication in honeybees. Apidologie 24:297–307

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Klein BA, Olzsowy KM, Klein A, Saunders KM, Seeley TD (2008) Caste-dependent sleep of worker honey bees. J Exp Biol 211:3028–3040

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Lewis F, Butler A, Gilbert L (2011) A unified approach to model selection using the likelihood ratio test. Methods Ecol Evol 2:155–162

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Michelsen A, Kirchner WH, Andersen BB, Lindauer M (1986a) The tooting and quacking vibration signals of honeybee queens: a quantitative analysis. J Comp Physiol A 158:605–611

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Michelsen A, Kirchner W, Lindauer M (1986b) Sound and vibrational signals in the dance language of the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 18:207–212

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Miklas N, Čokl A, Renou M, Virant-Doberlet M (2003) Variability of vibratory signals and mate choice selectivity in the southern green stink bug. Behav Process 61:131–142

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Nieh JC (2010) A negative feedback signal that is triggered by peril curbs honey bee recruitment. Curr Biol 20:310–315

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Nieh JC, Tautz J (2000) Behaviour-locked signal analysis reveals weak 200-300 Hz comb vibrations during the honeybee waggle dance. J Exp Biol 203:1573–1579

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Pierce AL, Lewis LA, Schneider SS (2007) The use of the vibration signal and worker piping to influence queen behavior during swarming in honey bees, Apis mellifera. Ethology 113:267–275

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. R Core Team (2014) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. Austria, Vienna

    Google Scholar 

  18. Roever C (2015) bspec: Bayesian spectral inference. The Comprehensive R Archive Network. https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=bspec. Accessed 17 August 2017

  19. Sandeman D, Tautz J, Lindauer M (1996) Transmission of vibration across honeycombs and its detection by bee leg receptors. J Exp Biol 199:2585–2594

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Schneider SS, Painter-Kurt S, Degrandi-Hoffman G (2001) The role of the vibration signal during queen competition in colonies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Anim Behav 61:1173–1180

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Seeley TD, Reich AM, Tautz J (2005) Does plastic comb foundation hinder waggle dance communication? Apidologie 36:513–521

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Smith ML, Koenig PA, Peters JM (2017) The cues of colony size: how honey bees sense that their colony is large enough to begin to invest in reproduction. J Exp Biol 220:1597–1605

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. Smith ML, Ostwald MM, Loftus JC, Seeley TD (2014) A critical number of workers in a honeybee colony triggers investment in reproduction. Naturwissenschaften 101:783–790

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Smith ML, Ostwald MM, Seeley TD (2016) Honey bee sociometry: tracking honey bee colonies and their nest contents from colony founding until death. Insect Soc 63:553–563

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Suryanarayanan S, Hermanson JC, Jeanne RL (2011) A mechanical signal biases caste development in a social wasp. Curr Biol 21:231–235

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Tautz J (1996) Honeybee waggle dance: recruitment success depends on the dance floor. J Exp Biol 1381:1375–1381

    Google Scholar 

  27. Tautz J, Rohrseitz K (1998) What attracts honeybees to a waggle dancer? J Comp Physiol A 183:661–667

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. von Frisch K (1967) The dance language and orientation of bees (translated by Leigh E. Chadwick). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank Bruce Land, Janis Dickinson, Cissy Ballen, Kern Reeve, and Tom Seeley for helpful discussion and critical feedback on the manuscript.

Funding

MLS is supported by a NSF-GRFP fellowship (DGE-1144153). This research was funded with a NSF-DDIG grant (1600775), an Andrew W. Mellon research grant, and a Centennial Pollinator Fellowship from the Garden Club of America (to MLS)

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael L Smith.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by D. Naug

Electronic supplementary material

figure5

High resolution (JPEG 208 kb)

ESM 1

Comb vibrations did not change with the mass of bees on the comb. Power spectrum density plots showed no difference as the number of dead bees on the focal comb increases (a black line, 0 dead bees on comb; red line, 400 dead bees; green line, 800 dead bees; orange line, 1200 dead bees; gray line, 1600 dead bees). Whereas comb vibrations decreased with the number of live bees, increasing the mass of the comb by adding dead bees did not reduce comb vibrations (b no effect of dead bees on root mean square amplitude; see Supplementary Figure for similar results in average power and maximum power). Xs in black denote the number of dead bees in the cells of the focal comb. Circles denote live bees, with colors indicating different colonies, and the black line shows the significant relationship between vibrations and live bees on the comb (EPS 1193 kb)

ESM 2

(DOCX 255 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Smith, M.L., Chen, PC. Larger but not louder: bigger honey bee colonies have quieter combs. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 71, 169 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-017-2399-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Substrate-borne vibration
  • Signal propagation
  • Honeycomb
  • Superorganism
  • Social insects
  • Colony size