Researchers have been monitoring honeybee “waggle dances” to track where they find the best nectar and pollen and measure the benefits of biodiverse landscapes.
The results reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology May 22 suggest that costly measures to set aside agricultural lands and let the wildflowers grow can be very beneficial to bees.
“In the past two decades, the European Union has spent 41 billion euros on agri-environment schemes, which aim to improve the rural landscape health and are required for all EU-member states,” says Margaret Couvillon of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex in a release.
“Our work uses a novel source of data — the honeybee, an organism that itself can benefit from a healthy rural landscape — to evaluate not only the environment, but also the schemes used to manage that environment.”
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Couvillon and her colleagues, led by Francis Ratnieks, recorded and decoded the waggle dances of bees in three hives over a two-year period. Bees dance to tell their fellow bees where to find the good stuff: the best nectar and pollen.
The angle of their dances conveys information about the direction of resources while the duration conveys distance. Researchers can measure those dance characteristics in a matter of minutes with a protractor and timer.
The study shows that honeybees can serve as bioindicators to monitor large land areas and provide information relevant to better environmental management, the researchers say. It also gives new meaning to the term “worker bee.”
“Imagine the time, manpower, and cost to survey such an area on foot — to monitor nectar sources for quality and quantity of production, to count the number of other flower-visiting insects to account for competition, and then to do this over and over for two foraging years,” Couvillon says.
“Instead, we have let the honeybees do the hard work of surveying the landscape and integrating all relevant costs and then providing, through their dance communication, this biologically relevant information about landscape quality.”