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Study of bees by UC San Diego biologist provides insight into evolution of bee communication

A team of biologists working in Brazil may have found the clues to resolving the longstanding mystery of why some species of bees, such as honey bees, communicate the location of food with dances in their hives and why other bees simply leave scent trails from the food source to the nest.

In the paper to appear in the October 22nd issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, biologists at the University of California, San Diego and the University of So Paulo report that one species of Brazilian stingless bee uses a slightly different form of communication, presumably in an effort to confuse its foraging competitors. An early on-line version of the paper is available at http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/proc_bio/proc_bio.html .

"Previously, biologists thought different species of bees either marked the food source or left an odor trail from the food all the way to the nest," says James Nieh, an assistant professor of biology at UCSD who headed the study. "We have discovered an intermediate strategy, in which bees leave an odor trail extending a short distance from the food source. This abbreviated trail may be less conspicuous to foraging competitors."

The discovery is significant because it may help scientists understand how "functionally referential communication," or the use of abstract representations to convey information about the physical world, could have evolved.

Bees and humans are among a small number of species that can use abstract representations to communicate. For example, honeybees use a "waggle dance" in which a returning forager bee runs up and down the honeycombs and shakes her abdomen to communicate distance and direction to a food source. Honeybees communicate within the nest how to get to the food source and do not leave a scent trail between the nest and the food source. However, they can mark flowers with special odors to help guide nestmates
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Contact: Sherry Seethaler
858-534-4656
University of California - San Diego
22-Sep-2003


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