Buzz off, we're taking it easy, bees tell scientists
Research shows some insects belie their reputation and won't go foraging for food until supplies run out
Sunday 16 November 2008
We have all been conned. Even the name suggests industry: the worker bumblebee is, we thought, the epitome of effort as it buzzes around, foraging for food. But now research has revealed that, far from striving tirelessly for the good of the colony, bees are as prone to slacking as the rest of us when they can get away with it.
Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London, discovered that some bumblebees have a tendency to ignore promptings to go out to get food, choosing to rest instead if there is even a tiny amount of food in their store.
Dr Nigel Raine and his colleague Dr Mathieu Molet studied how bees make sure they have enough food for their needs. They found that the insects use a sophisticated system to decide whether they need to go out to work or whether they can afford to take it easy.
Bumblebees returning with a large amount of food give off a chemical signal, a pheromone, designed to excite the others and persuade them to rush out to take advantage of good food supplies.
But the message is not always heeded. "The bees are doing really quite complicated things: assessing how much food they have, looking in the larder to see whether they have got to go out get more," Dr Raine said. "It's like 'Oh no, I've got to go to Sainsbury's'."
He added: "If they go out and don't find stuff quickly, they just return to the nest and say: 'Things aren't looking so good today.' The ones who are less successful will wait for another forager to come back and give them more information about where to look.
"If there isn't stuff to collect, a lot of them are pretty much on standby. They will be sitting around doing very little, or apparently so."
The researchers, who have published a paper outlining their research in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, studied colonies in a laboratory using tiny electronic RFID tags – used on clothes to prevent shoplifting – which were fitted to the bumblebees to record when they left the nest to look for food.
Several colonies were then stocked with different levels of food. Artificial pheromones, mimicking the bees' chemical communication system, were used to stimulate the inhabitants, and more than 16,000 foraging trips were monitored.
They found the bees often displayed a relaxed attitude towards food when supplies were plentiful, and only when the number of full honeypots fell below 5 per cent did the insects start living up to their reputation for being "busy", with an 80 per cent rise in foraging.
Dr Raine said it was not that bumblebees are lazy, but that a reasonably relaxed strategy had evolved as the best way to gather food while conserving energy. "They are busy when there is work to be done," he said.
The scientists stressed that this is not just esoteric insect research: understanding what motivates the bees could be used to increase their effectiveness as pollinators of commercial crops, such as tomatoes.
Liam Neeson's Downton dreams
Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage
Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour
Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason
Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama
Campaigners lobby Duchess of Cornwall to persuade her son-in-law to cease Knebworth solar farm
Animal Extinction - the greatest threat to mankind
Climate change means rate of growth of trees has gone up by 77%
Shoppers rush to buy extra-strength vacuum cleaners before EU ban comes into force
Conquering Everest: 60 facts about the world's tallest mountain
- 1 Thailand beach murders: Thai PM suggests 'attractive' female tourists cannot expect to be safe wearing bikinis
- 2 Scottish independence: What you shouldn't tweet about if you want to avoid jail today
- 3 Scottish independence: Five reasons Salmond is secretly hoping for a 'No' vote
- 4 Isis plan to 'behead random member of the public' in Sydney thwarted by Australian police
- 5 Scottish independence: Andy Murray backs Yes campaign in eleventh hour decision
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...
£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...
£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...
£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...