well-organized groups with a strict social hierarchy. Such an advanced level of social structure is found only in highly evolved species, which are capable of performing a variety of complex tasks with great efficiency. Members of a bee society have different roles ranging from food gathering and nest creation to the upbringing of youth. To manage these tasks their level of communication and the division of labor shows a stupendous level of precision. The organization of bee families could be perhaps even compared to a human society. While humans communicate via spoken or written word, bees dance to indicate the direction of the most nutritious flowers. This waggle-dance along with their sophisticated way of learning makes bees one of the most fascinating species on Earth.
Let’s find out more about the unique learning skills of bees.
#1 Returning visitors
At around 340 BC the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle first observed that bee workers prefer to visit the same type of flowers during their foraging trips. And indeed, many centuries of further observation confirmed that bees are flower constant. The reason behind it is purely practical. It takes 5 to 6 visits to learn how to effectively obtain nectar from a flower. By specializing on the same type of flower, bees do not have to waste their time and energy on discovering how to get this sweet reward.
On top of that, the flower constancy of bees is an amazing feat of how perfectly nature functions, as it increases the probability of pollen being distributed between the same floral species without being wasted, thus maximizing reproduction success¹.
#2 Favorite color
Color recognition is one of the best examples of how bees are able to associate certain colors with coveted nectar. The Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his lifelong research on bee communication during the dangerous times of World War II was the first person to ask whether bees look at colors when collecting nectar from flowers. He performed an experiment where he got bees used to receive their treat from a blue cardboard. Then, he surrounded it by identical cardboards of different shades of gray and let the bees choose again. The majority of them flew directly to the blue cardboard, which proves that bees do remember their “lucky” color².
#3 Extraordinarily sensitive sniffers
Bees instinctively rely a lot on smell. They use it for orientation, to distinguish who is their friend, and most importantly to locate flowers with nectar. Their sense of smell is extraordinarily precise. They can catch a scent in flight and, in fact, this ability is already put in use to help us detect drugs, explosives, or early stages of cancer.
Scientists from the University of Cologne in Germany have taught bees to detect the difference between heroin and cocaine. The principle of this technique is simple: bees extend their “tongue” (proboscis) in response to a certain odor because they associate it with receiving a treat. This means that you can actually train them to react to the odor you want by providing alongside with it sugar water as a treat. After bees become familiar with the smell, they will always stick their tongue out in its presence and this way we can tell what substance it is³. Similarly, researchers of the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US have trained bees to detect explosives by getting them used to the odor of particular ingredients of bombs⁴.
Another interesting project is linked to the early detection of diseases such as lung and skin cancer, tuberculosis, and diabetes. According to a Portuguese designer, Susana Soares, bees are able to quickly sense the specific odor of a disease from human breath, when accustomed to it. Therefore, Susanna designed a glass ball with two chambers, a smaller one for diagnosis and a larger chamber with bees inside it. When a patient breathes into the ball, bees fly into the small chamber towards the familiar smell if they have detected the disease. You can find more information about this project here.
#4 Bees like to move it, move it
One of the most sophisticated ways of communication in the animal kingdom is definitely the bee waggle-dance. Only successful bee workers perform this dance to share the location of the rich source of nutrition with other hive colleagues. This mysterious behavior, first explained by Karl von Frisch in the book The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees (1967) actually provides complex information about the presence, exact location and even odor of a worthy source of nectar. The dancing bee waggles its abdomen, while circling in figures of eight and repeats the same sequence of moves several times. The pattern of the dance is also associated with the location of sun, which helps bees to orient themselves in the landscape.
#5 Orientation perks
Bees learn what are the significant landmarks around the hive during their first departure to forage. They are able to find their way back to the hive by remembering specific features of the environment. Paradoxically, if the hive is moved just a few feet from its original location while bees are out, they have a hard time to find their way home, however, when it is moved overnight even over a long distance, bees memorize the next morning the location of the hive and do not have any problem finding it². Every time a hive is moved to a new location, bees make a few orientation flights around to scan the environment before leaving off to collect nectar⁵.