Espionage may have driven the evolution of bee language according to UCSD-led study in Brazil

A discovery by a University of California, San Diego biologist that some species of bees exploit chemical clues left by other bee species to guide their kin to food provides evidence that eavesdropping may be an evolutionary driving force behind some bees' ability to conceal communication inside the hive, using a form of animal language to encode food location.

Bees can use two main forms of communication to tell their hive mates where to find food: abstract representations such as sounds or dances within the hive or scent markings outside the hive to mark the food and/or the route to it. In 1999, James Nieh, an assistant professor of biology at UCSD, published a paper in which he hypothesized communication within the hive may have evolved as a way of avoiding espionage by competitors.

Nieh's most recent study, a collaboration with Brazilian biologists published June 16 in the early on-line version of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, is strong support for that hypothesis because it shows that bees can indeed use the chemical markings deposited by bees of other species to home in on and take over their food source. The paper will appear in print in Proceedings of the Royal Society in August.

"We show that foragers of an aggressive species searching for an unscented food source at a new location, detected and preferentially oriented to odor marks deposited by a competitor and then rapidly dominated the food source, killing or driving off all of the competitors within ten minutes," says Nieh. "The ability of foragers to communicate food location within the confines of the hive, where other bees cannot eavesdrop, would be a clear evolutionary advantage where floral resources are seasonally scarce."

Nieh along with Felipe Contrera and Vera Imperatriz-Fonseca from the University of So Paulo, Brazil and Lillian Barreto from Agricultural Development Agency of the the State of Bahia, Brazil studied interactions between two s

Contact: Sherry Seethaler
University of California - San Diego

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