Recently, a group of scientists figured out a form of communication among bees, having decoded a bit of honeybee speech, and they believe the word being buzzed by the bees is “whoop.” Per a study in the journal PLOS One, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) researchers discovered how a specific honeybee vibrational signal, which was long believed to be just a warning signal for danger, may also be a startle response when the insects collide together within the hive.
Before the NTU study, it was believed this signal was only used to quiet individual bees in the midst of informing the hive about the location of a food source. Honeybees are known to communicate this information through a “waggle dance,” a very intricate combination of body movements and vibrations used to communicate to other bees specifically where resources are and their exact distance away. The dances are extremely precise and can indicate food sources nearly four miles away.
The warning signal the NTU researchers studied is meant to halt these communication dances. If a location is deemed a threat, the warning signals are used to interrupt the movements as protection, telling everyone to stay where they are. Now, to decipher the bees’ communication methods, the researching group rigged hives with sensors that recorded vibrational frequencies and their amplitude. The software let them study the pulses of the vibrations. The hive also held a camera, which recorded the bees and their movements. They observed these warning signals and realized they were happening a lot, leading the group to believe the bees were sending more complex messages.
“We have found that this signal is remarkably common, much more than previously thought,” said co-author Martin Bencsik, an NTU researcher and physicist. “We believe that in only a small number of instances is it used as an inhibitory [warning] signal and therefore have proposed a new name: the ‘whooping signal.'” Bencsik says that, in the long term, the monitoring device might help governments track epidemics on a larger scale.
Michael T. Ramsey, one of the study’s co-authors, hopes to expand the understanding of honeybee communication through their work. “This vibrational pulse was originally known as the ‘begging signal,’ as it was believed to be a request for food. Then, it was thought to be a purely inhibitory ‘stop signal.’ Now, we have taken this another step forward. It shows promise that our methods can be used as a sensitive way of monitoring and assessing colony status for these hugely important pollinators.”
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