Among the sciences, genetics has rocketed to the top of the leader board. Monumental breakthroughs are changing our existence. With a simple swab we can now produce incontrovertible evidence freeing wrongly convicted inmates from death row and solve crimes that have been cold for decades. Through knowledge of our own genome, we now create new drugs and therapies to drastically alter the outcome of life-threatening diseases, reverse the effects of anomalous conditions, and even probe the ethical boundaries of creating life itself. Our ability to penetrate and understand the mysteries of evolution have increased exponentially. Sequencing the human genome has opened the universe to us. And while it is exciting to ponder the possibilities of life on other planets, through genetics we are now utterly understanding the miracle of life that has been here all along—on earth—right under our noses. With a seemingly endless parade of choices, what do you suppose was the next species we decided to sequence after humans? The honeybee!
On this entire biosphere, only we and honeybees have a symbolic language of math and science. Honeybees live in societies that rival our own in size and complexity. A single hive may contain as many as 80,000 individuals, which together build the hive, gather food, feed, and raise the next generation. They accomplish common goals with a diverse population. They find democratic solutions. There is a queen, but she easily surrenders her crown to a new queen by consensus vote. Bee swarms are like our political conventions but without the lies and manipulation—scouts look for a new home, then caucus to make a fact-based decision. Studying honeybees could help us understand how genes build complex animal society. It might also edify our own political processes.
We and honeybees evolved from a common ancestor some 600 million years ago—a small water-borne critter. Our forerunner changed into fish and then moved onto land. The honeybee’s forebear evolved into a crustacean-like ocean-dweller, later branched again, then moved ashore and developed as insects. Early on, insects had fixed wings (like dragonflies); however, about 300 million years ago honeybee ancestors evolved from folded wing insects, along with beetles, ants, flies, mosquitoes, and wasps. Honeybees evolved from predatory wasps in what must have been an evangelical climax of the first order, quivering and sobbing in bodies glorified, as they renounced violence and converted to flower-grazing! Their origin, Africa, bespeaks this aboriginal foundation which manifests today as aggressive African honeybees—the oldest lineage of honeybees on earth.
One of the biggest surprises in the honeybee genome project was just how much like humans they are—at least among insects. Fruit flies and mosquitoes, for example, developed at a faster rate than honeybees. In the process, they lost many more genes than honeybees (and other mammals, including humans). The genome team identified 762 genes that honeybees and mammals still hold in common but are missing in fruit flies. Many of the genes we share function the same. For example, we and honeybees have the same system of genes that regulate our body clocks; fruit flies use a completely different set. Our common ancestor, therefore, had both.
The difference between honeybees and other insects widened over time. While many insects devour leaves and stems and seeds of plants thereby threatening reproductive success, honeybees have a friendly rapport. Flowers and fruits depend on honeybees to spread their pollen to ensure proliferation. While other insect larvae like caterpillars eat their host plants for food, honeybees are incubated in hives delivered safe nectar by doting aunts. To find suitable nectaring plants, the honeybee has many more genes for smelling than most insects. Scientists tallied 170 olfactory genes, compared to just 62 in flies. But not all bees in a hive search for food.
Each hive is divided into castes, such as foragers, sterile female workers who tend the larvae, male concubine drones for the queen, and the queen herself. The genetic information for building all these honeybees is stored in the same genome. The queen’s royal status comes with big responsibility. She lives ten times longer than her workers but that’s because she must lay 2,000 eggs a day! As larvae, each bee’s fate is determined by how it develops. At first, all babies are fed a substance secreted from the head of workers, called royal jelly—a rich source of vitamins and other nutrients. After 3 days most larvae get switched to a diet of honey; only the few destined to become future queens continue to enjoy royal jelly.
Honeybee communication is one of nature’s most astounding miracles. Research from Michigan State University (2004) indicates that pheromones play an important role in how a honeybee colony adjusts its distribution of labor to seasonal changes and the availability of food. Younger bees play a role inside the hive while older bees play a role outside the hive, mostly as foragers. These researchers found that foragers gather and carry a chemical called ethyl oleate in the stomach. Forager bees feed this primer pheromone to the worker bees, and the chemical keeps them in a nurse bee state, preventing them from maturing too early to become forager bees. As forager bees die off, less of the pheromone becomes available and nurse bees more quickly mature to become foragers, adjusting the division of labor. Queen bees convey a sense of well-being to the hive by producing a special pheromone that tells the others that she’s alive and healthy, thereby encouraging everyone to stay productive for the hive. Pheromones can also cause a defense reaction in the hive. When a worker stings, it produces a pheromone that alerts her fellow workers to the threat. That’s why intruders suffer multiple stings when the colony is disturbed.
While pheromones assist bee communication, “dancing” seems to be a central language shared by all honeybees. It’s a language packed with angles, distance, and direction—all designed to communicate locations critical to the welfare of the colony. These most often involve identifying important food sources, the quality of those food resources and how to locate them with GPS accuracy. Honeybees periodically decide to move the hive (or part of the hive) and dancing shows the path for all pilgrims to follow. Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology in Munich, Germany, earned the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his groundbreaking research on this dance language. Later work has added many details. Here’s how it works.
Distances fall into two generalized dance routines: the round dance and the waggle dance. The round dance is used for food sources up to 100 meters from the hive. The scout bee returns to the hive and, after sharing samples of her new-found nectar, begins running in a small circle, alternating direction every so often. This dance gives no directional information—foraging bees simply fly out of the hive in all directions looking for the food they know must be there. Odor helps find the new flowers.
The waggle dance, which traces either a figure eight or sickle shaped pattern, includes information about both direction and distance. It’s used for longer quests. Estimated distance is a function of laps around the circuit. A bee may dance 8-9 circuits for flowers 200 meters away, 4-5 circuits for those 1,000 meters away, or 3 circuits for targets 2,000 meters away. Direction is indicated by which way the dancer faces when she waggles during the straight portion of the dance. If she waggles while facing straight upward, the food source is found in the direction of the sun. If she waggles at a 60-degree angle to the left, foragers should look 60-degrees to the left of the sun. The dancer also flaps her wings and emits sounds during the waggle run that help communicate direction inside dark hives.
In all cases, the quality and quantity of nectar determines the liveliness of the dances. The better the stash, the more enthusiastic the dance, with excited vibrations and buzzing. There are more dances, one for recruiting more foragers to help transport the nectar and another for encouraging more processors within the hive to work the nectar into honey. Here’s a video of this language of dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LU_KD1enR3Q
The bottom line? We are not the only intelligent life on this planet. Honeybees enjoy a complex society on a level arguably more enlightened than ours, one in which decisions are made with a collective consciousness based on consensus. Honeybees manage all this with only a million neurons in their head—a thousandth of the number we have! Charles Darwin has shown we are not the omnipotent masters of creation, charged with managing the affairs of earth; he has provided a fact-based alternative to the tale of Adam and Eve. Genetics shows we share a common ancestor with honeybees. How are their thoughts and feelings different from ours? Through branching of our family trees, we are in some ways similar but on different evolutionary voyages. Or are we?
By Larry Gfeller