Welcome to the Nieh Lab

Competition and olfactory eavesdropping

Olfactory eavesdropping is widespread among the social bees, who can use it to avoid predators (Li, J., Wang, Z., Qu, Y., and Nieh J.C. (2014) Giant Asian honey bees use olfactory eavesdropping to detect and avoid ant predators. Animal Behaviour. 97:69-76.) or exploit it to find good food sources.

All social bees have some form of odor marking at the food source, but only the stingless bees use odor trails. There is intriguing variation in the length of these odor trails, with some species producing complete odor trails that extend from the nest to the food source, others producing short odor trails that extend only a few meters away from the food source in the direction of the nest, and finally some that only odor mark the food source alone. Why does this variation exist?

Some stingless bees are highly aggressive (Nieh, Kruizinga et al. 2005; Lichtenberg, Imperatriz-Fonseca et al. 2010) and actively compete with other stingless bees over food sources (Nieh, Contrera et al. 2003). For example, the aggressive species, Trigona spinipes, can evidently eavesdrop and orient towards the odor mark deposited for good food sources by other species such as Melipona rufiventris. In experiments, this eavesdropping occurred when T. spinipes foragers were acting as scouts. Trigona spinipes foragers were also clearly able to distinguish between their own odor marks and those of M. rufiventris. After finding the food source marked by the "victim" species, T. spinipes attacked, drove away, and killed the M. rufiventris foragers, taking over the food (Nieh, Barreto et al. 2004). Recently, we have found that such eavesdropping is strategic and can be applied by aggressive species in a context-dependent manner. Eavesdroppers avoid food sources with higher concentrations of recruitment phermone, perhaps because the cost of fighting over and monopolizing such a resource is too high when it is already being visited by a significant number of competitors (Lichtenberg EM, Hrncir M, Turatti IC, Nieh JC (2011) Olfactory eavesdropping by two competing stingless bee species. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 65:763-774) (Lichtenberg, E., Graff Zivin, J., Hrncir, M. and Nieh, J. C. (2014) Eavesdropping selects for conspicuous signals. Current Biology. 24(1): R598-R599. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.05.062).

Limiting the conspicuousness of odor marks via strategies such as decreasing odor trail length could be an effective counter strategy to such eavesdropping. However, this would also decrease the amount of guidance information offered to recruits. Providing encoded location information, functionally referential communication, at the nest would replace such lost odor trail information.

Interestingly, all bees for which there is some evidence for functionally referential communication, including honey bees, use only point-source odor marking (Nieh 2004). Whether this is due to eavesdropping and aggressive competition remains to be determined. However, stingless bees and honey bees still aggressively compete in the environments and regions in which they evolved. Thus, we speculate that eavesdropping may have contributed to the evolution of functionally referential communication at the nest.

In the video below, Trigona hyalinata (an aggressive Brazilian species of stingless bee) is shown here attacking, pinning, and ejecting a much larger stingless bee from a rich sucrose feeder. This video was shot by Shawn Kessler at the Fazenda Aretuzina, Brazil.

Learn more about the study of Behavioral Ecology at UCSD.


Please note: The copyright of these articles (with the exception of Open Access articles) is with their respective publishers. By downloading an article, you agree to limit the use of the pdf file to printing of single copies for personal research and study. You may not modify the files in any way, or to use them for commercial purposes.

Lichtenberg EL, Imperatriz-Fonseca VL, Nieh JC (2010) Behavioral suites mediate group-level foraging dynamics in communities of tropical stingless bees. Insectes Sociaux 57: 105-113

Lichtenberg EM, Hrncir M, Turatti IC, Nieh JC (in press) Olfactory eavesdropping by two competing stingless bee species. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Nieh JC (2004) Recruitment communication in stingless bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Meliponini). Apidologie 35: 159-182

Nieh JC, Barreto LS, Contrera FAL, Imperatriz-Fonseca VL (2004) Olfactory eavesdropping by a competitively foraging stingless bee, Trigona spinipes. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 271: 1633-1640

Nieh JC, Contrera FAL, Nogueira-Neto P (2003) Pulsed mass-recruitment by a stingless bee, Trigona hyalinata. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 270: 2191-2196

Nieh JC, Kruizinga K, Barreto LS, Contrera FAL, Imperatriz-Fonseca VL (2005) Effect of group size on the aggression strategy of an extirpating stingless bee, Trigona spinipes. Insectes Sociaux 52: 1-8