The control of water collection in honey bee colonies


A honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony adaptively controls the collection of water by its foragers, increasing it when high temperatures necesssitate evaporative cooling inside the hive and decreasing it when the danger of overheating passes. This study analyzes the mechanisms controlling water collection once it has begun, that is, how a colony's water collectors know whether to continue or stop their activity. M. Lindauer suggested that water collectors acquire information about their colony's need for more water by noting how easily they can unload their water to bees inside the hive. In support of this hypothesis, we found that a water collector's ease of unloading does indeed change when her colony's need for water changes. How does a water collector sense the ease of unloading? Multiple variables of the unloading experience change in relation to a colony's water need. Three time-based variables – initial search time, total search time, and delivery time – all change quite strongly. But what changes most strongly is the number of unloading rejections (refusals by receiver bees to take the water), suggesting that this is the primary index of ease of unloading. Why does a water collector's ease of unloading change when her colony's need for water changes? Evidently, what links these two variables is change in the number of water receivers. These are middle-aged bees that receive water just inside the hive entrance, then transport it deeper inside the hive, and finally smear it on the walls of cells or give it to other bees, or both. A colony increases the number of water receivers when its water need increases by having bees engaged in nectar reception and other tasks (and possibly also bees that are not working) switch to the task of water reception. Evidently the activation of additional water receivers does not strongly reduce the number of nectar receivers in a colony, since a colony can increase greatly its water collection without simultaneously decreasing its collection of rich nectar. This study provides a clear example of the way that the members of a social insect colony can use indirect indicators of their colony's labor needs to adaptively control the work that they perform.

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Received: 20 February 1997 / Accepted after revision: 8 August 1997

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Kühnholz, S., Seeley, T. The control of water collection in honey bee colonies. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 41, 407–422 (1997).

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  • Key wordsApis mellifera
  • Colony integration
  • Division of labor
  • Temperature control
  • Water collection