Insect societies have evolved communication systems of remarkable complexity. Highly social bees (honey bees and stingless bees) use sophisticated methods to exploit resources such as pollen, nectar, water, resin and nest sites. Social bees can recruit, increase the number of nestmates at a particular location or increase the number of nestmates searching for a particular resource at non-specific locations (Nieh and Roubik 1995; Nieh, Tautz et al. 2000; Nieh 2004; Sánchez, Nieh et al. 2008; Kuhn-Neto, Contrera et al. 2009; Sánchez, Nieh et al. 2009).
Research in the Nieh lab examines the mechanisms that allow highly social bees to communicate resource location and seeks to understand how these communication systems have evolved (Nieh 2009; Ramírez, Nieh et al. 2010).
Honey bees use functionally referential communication, the transfer of environmental information into coded signals understood by a conspecific receiver. Such a system may be a sophisticated form of animal communication because of the cognitive complexities presumably involved in transforming sensory information into coded communication signals. However, the question of how functionally referential communication has evolved in bees and whether it exists only in honey bees, within the bees, remains relatively unexplored. Part of our research focuses on the possibility that some species of stingless bees in the genus Melipona may referentially encode the location of a food source (Nieh and Roubik 1998; Nieh, Contrera et al. 2003).
This video shows a stingless bee (Melipona panamica) communicating inside the nest to recruit nestmates to a rich sugar solution.
Honey bees (Sadler and Nieh 2011), stingless bees (Nieh and Sánchez 2005; Contrera and Nieh 2007), bumble bees (Nieh, Leon et al. 2006; Mapalad, Leu et al. 2008), and wasps (Eckles, Wilson et al. 2008) can regulate their body temperature (specifically the temperature of the thorax) according to resource quality. In these flying insects, elevated thoracic temperatures are correlated with increased flight muscle power. Thus, foragers may be able to fly back and collect rewarding resources more rapidly if their flight muscles are warmer. In addition, such elevated thorax temperatures may be sensed by bees inside the nest and provide information (Hammer, Hata et al. 2009).
In some cases, the need to maintain thoracic muscles at a specific temperature range or warm flight muscles to achieve sufficient power for flight may provide a clue to how sound and vibrational foraging signals evolved. For example, the buzzing sounds produced by Melipona panamica foragers just prior to takeoff from a food source increase under cold ambient conditions and are similar to buzzing sounds produced during recruitment, just before the bee flies from the nest to the resource (Contrera and Nieh 2007).
Finally, chemical communication plays a key role in the foraging of honey bees, stingless bees (Nieh, Contrera et al. 2004; Contrera and Nieh 2007; Sánchez, Nieh et al. 2008; Lichtenberg, Hrncir et al. 2009; Nieh 2009; Sánchez, Nieh et al. 2009), and bumble bees (Renner and Nieh 2008). Our lab is currently investigating how chemical cues and signals of predation affect bee foraging (Nieh 2010).
It turns out that stingless bees can produce sounds while collecting a nectar-type reward. In the video below, we see the stingless bee, Melipona panamica collecting a rich sucrose solution from an artificial feeder while a microphone (white tube) records the different sounds made by the forager. It turns out that bees produce more of these sounds when the temperature decreases. The sounds are produced by bees buzzing their flight muscles, which need to achieve a certain minimum temperature for efficient flight. Thus, the sounds may be a byproduct of this muscle warming.
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Contrera FAL, Nieh JC (2007) The effect of ambient temperature on forager sound production and thoracic temperature in the stingless bee, Melipona panamica. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 61: 887-897
Contrera FAL, Nieh JC (2007) Effect of forager-deposited odors on the intra-patch accuracy of recruitment of the stingless bees Melipona panamica and Partamona peckolti (Apidae, Meliponini). Apidologie 38: 584-594
Eckles MA, Wilson EE, Holway DA, Nieh JC (2008) Yellowjackets (Vespula pensylvanica) thermoregulate in response to changes in protein concentration. Naturwissenschaften 95: 787-792
Hammer TJ, Hata C, Nieh JC (2009) Thermal learning in the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 3928-3934
Kuhn-Neto B, Contrera FAL, Castro MS, Nieh JC (2009) Worker body size affects intraspecific foraging range in a highly social bee. Apidologie 40: 472-480. DOI: 10.1051/apido/2009007
Lichtenberg EM, Hrncir M, Nieh JC (2009) A scientific note: foragers deposit attractive scent marks in a stingless bee that does not communicate food location. Apidologie 40: 1-2
Mapalad KS, Leu D, Nieh JC (2008) Bumble bees heat up for high quality pollen. Journal of Experimental Biology 211: 2239-2242
Nieh JC (2004) Recruitment communication in stingless bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Meliponini). Apidologie 35: 159-182
Nieh JC (2009) Convergent evolution of food recruitment mechanisms in wasps and bees. In: Gadau J, Fewell J (eds) Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. pp. 264-286
Nieh JC (2010) A negative feedback signal is triggered by peril and curbs honey bee recruitment. Current Biology 20: 1-6
Nieh JC, Roubik DW (1995) A stingless bee (Melipona panamica) indicates food location without using a scent trail. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 37: 63-70
Nieh JC, Roubik DW (1998) Potential mechanisms for the communication of height and distance by a stingless bee, Melipona panamica. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 43: 387-399
Nieh JC, Contrera FAL, Yoon RR, Barreto LS, Imperatriz-Fonseca VL (2004) Polarized short odor-trail recruitment communication by a stingless bee, Trigona spinipes. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 56: 435-448
Nieh JC, León A, Cameron S, Vandame R (2006) Hot bumblebees at good food: thoracic temperature of feeding Bombus wilmattae foragers is tuned to sucrose concentration. Journal of Experimental Biology 209: 4185-4192
Nieh JC, Sánchez D (2005) Effect of food quality, distance and height on thoracic temperature in the stingless bee Melipona panamica. The Journal of Experimental Biology 208: 3933-3943
Nieh JC, Tautz J, Spaethe J, Bartareau T (2000) The communication of food location by a primitive stingless bee, Trigona carbonaria. Zoology 102: 239-246
Ramírez SR, Nieh JC, Quental TB, Roubik DW, Imperatriz-Fonseca VL, Pierce NE (2010) A molecular phylogeny of the stingless bee genus Melipona (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56: 519-525
Renner MA, Nieh JC (2008) Bumble bee olfactory information flow and contact-based foraging activation. Insectes Sociaux 55: 417-424
Sánchez D, Nieh JC, León A, Vandame R (2009) Food recruitment information can spatially redirect employed stingless bee foragers. Ethology 115: 1175-1181
Sánchez D, Nieh J, Vandame R (2008) Experience-based interpretation of visual and chemical information in Scaptotrigona mexicana (Apidae, Meliponini). Animal Behaviour 76: 407-414
Sadler, N. and J. C. Nieh (2011). "Honey bee forager thoracic temperature is tuned to broad scale differences in recruitment motivation. ." Journal of Experimental Biology 214: 469-475.