Oh, my. We did not finish all our reports from the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference before the year ended and now the Spring 2018 Conference is soon upon us. As part of a desperate sprint, we now cover Dr. Thomas Seeley‘s talk The Bee Colony as an Information Center, based upon information in his book The Wisdom of the Hive.

The landscape around a honeybee colony is dotted with patches of fluctuating resources to be gathered. The resource may be water, pollen, resins for propolis, or nectar for honey but for the rest of this text we shall focus on nectar. Now consider all the variables. Each kind of flower blooms for a different part of the year, provides its nectar at a different time of the day, and its nectar has a different amount of sugariness. All of these are affected by weather. And the patches of flowers can vary in size and distance from the hive. The problem facing the colony is how to efficiently allocate foragers to each useful patch and reallocate as the patch dries up.

The key to the allocation problem is that each forager has a sense of the energetic profitability of a given patch, i.e. the metabolic energy obtainable from the sugar in the gathered nectar compared with the energy expended in gathering it. So a patch of flowers with sugar-rich nectar is preferable to an equidistant patch of sugar-poor flowers. And a patch of flowers nearer the hive is preferable to an identical patch much further away.

We already know how a forager recruits additional foragers and directs them to her patch by waggle-dancing the distance and direction. She also reflects the profitability by the number of circuits she performs.1 If an uncommitted forager heading out to search for a source encounters a waggling forager on the dance floor near the entrance, she may follow the dancer for five to ten figure-eight circuits, and then proceed to the source being indicated. When there are multiple foragers waggling for different sources, the particular waggler which a recruit first encounters is entirely random but because more circuits are made for better sources, more additional foragers are likely to encounter those wagglers and be recruited for those sources. The result is therefore the desired one that better sources get more foragers.

Furthermore a source that stays constantly profitable for a long part of the day will acquire more foragers than a transient source since a returning forager is likelier to waggle on each return to the hive. Foragers can thus be acquired in a flash or slowly and steadily.

An uncommitted forager who does not encounter a dancer or is not in a following mood will head out to possibly find her own patch. This is how newly blooming patches are discovered and by the process described above they will acquire their appropriate quantity of foragers from the uncommitted. Very few foragers will switch from one patch to another, even if that one is more profitable than the one they are currently working. But once a patch becomes unprofitable its foragers will quit although it takes a few days of unprofitability for them to entirely abandon the patch.

Dr. Seeley learned all this by direct observation of the bees during his experiments at the Cranberry Lake Bio Station in Adirondack Park, where the nearest natural forage is twelve miles away. The only honeybees in the park were therefore the ones he brought in his two-frame observation hive and their only forage was whatever he provided. After tediously labeling all four thousand bees (a two day job for four people) in his observation hive, he and his assistants would set out sugar syrup feeders, systematically varying sugar concentrations, locations, etc. while logging which particular individually numbered bees arrived at which feeder and which ones danced. The straightforward tedium to which much of science owes it advances. We are still gobsmacked at the thought of labeling four thousand bees. The Wisdom of the Hive describes the experiments in detail and clarifies (perhaps even corrects) the processes we have described.


1The most enthusiastic dancer Dr. Seeley observed was a water forager who danced for fifteen minutes making 346 circuits. She clearly thought the source was profitable although not a source of energy as we have been discussing.