If you have ever felt a yearning for a perfect picture of domestic bliss, take one look inside a simple beehive. The life of the social bee is a life of contentment and diligence, of strict order and unfailing discipline, of stratified classes and organized division of labor, and above all, of a collective mind which puts the survival of the colony above the survival of the individual. Bees are close relatives of wasps and ants, and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They also tend to exhibit some of most sophisticated behaviors in the animal world. In many species of social bees (honeybees being the best known example), hives consist of a reproductive queen, male drones whose only function is to mate with the queen, and several sterile, female worker bees. This week’s Current Biology carries a bunch of interesting studies concerning bees, which bring to light the layers of complexity that underlie the routine behaviors of these remarkable creatures. We are going to take a brief look at each of these studies.
Honeybees feed on nectar, a sweet tasting, sugar-rich substance produced by several species of flowering plants. Nectar carried back to the nests is used to prepare honey, which is stored as food for the young ones, and as surplus rations for the winter. The plants are benefitted by this, as pollen sticking to hairy bristles on the honeybee’s body helps cross-pollinate flowers. The nectar serves as incentive to get the bees to help in this process. So far this seems like a win-win situation for the plant and the bee (a relationship known as ‘mutualism’ in ecology), but nothing in biology is that simple. In light of recent evidence, it now appears that the plants are not as keen as the bees on providing an honest deal, and can trick the bees in a rather ingenious way.