Quirks & Quarks

Dancing bees reveal that U.K. cities offer more accessible food than the countryside

In a new study, researchers decoded honeybees' waggle dances to determine how far they have to travel to find food. Bees in agricultural areas have to travel twice as far as those living in the 'concrete jungle' of downtown London, according to the research.

Researchers tapped into honeybees' waggle dances to map out where they've been

A bee hovers next to flowers in St James's Park in central London. A new study shows that bees in urban environments have an easier time finding food than those that live in agricultural areas, primarily because of the diversity of flowers in gardens and parks. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

By watching honeybees dance for their hive mates, researchers have discovered that bees in some of the U.K.'s agricultural areas have to travel much farther than their urban counterparts to feed.

When honeybees return to the hive from foraging, they do a series of movements, called a waggle dance, to convey to their fellow bees where to find nectar.

"If the run is very long, that means the food is far away. And if it's short, the food is quite close. But that angle of the run relative to the top of the hive also tells the other bees about which direction they should fly in," Elli Leadbeater, author of the study and a professor of ecology and evolution at the Royal Holloway University of London, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Decoding the waggle

First decoded by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch in the 1920s, this dance involves the bees moving repeatedly in a figure eight pattern, wagging their rear end in the middle.

"I think it's amazing that these tiny creatures have such a sophisticated communication system," said Leadbeater. "We can capitalize on that, and we can translate their dances so that we can build maps of where they've actually been."

When honeybees return from foraging, they do a 'waggle dance' for the other bees in the hive to communicate where they found food. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Leadbeater and her team recorded videos of honeybees dancing at 10 hives in downtown London, England, and 10 hives in agricultural areas around the city, capturing a total of 2,827 waggle dances.

The team found that bees in urban areas had an average foraging distance of 492 metres, compared to bees in agricultural areas that had an average foraging distance of 743 metres. 

Urban gardens better for bees than agriculture monocrops

The results were not what Leadbeater was expecting.

"We were quite surprised because we found that even though the urban areas are somewhere that you would think of as a kind of concrete jungle — and we were really looking in the very centre of London, so it is very concrete — we found that the bees were actually finding it easier to find food there than they were in the agricultural land," said Leadbeater.

She points to urban gardens and parks, which often have a variety of flowers that bloom year-round, as being hotspots for the bees. However, in agricultural areas, where only one type of crop dominates a large area, bees may not be able to find food as easily.

"Those crops are only there for a small amount of time and then they're gone. So it's a bit of a boom and bust scenario. We don't have the kind of diversity of forage that that we used to have, where we would have wildflowers, we'd have flowering hedgerows," said Leadbeater. "Bees need weeds. They need those flowers. They're a really important source of forage for them."

Beekeeper and Chairman of The London Beekeepers Association John Chapple installs a new bee hive on an urban rooftop garden in London, England. Rooftop gardens such as this are helping urban bees amidst the 'concrete jungle' of a big city. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Her goal with this research was to understand the challenges bees are facing in different ecosystems.

"The aim behind this study was really to kind of use honeybees as a tool for surveying the landscape for other social bees, such as bumblebees, which often visit the same type of flowers as honeybees. We can say this is probably generally true for bumblebees as well, and those wild bees are the ones that we're looking to protect."

The solution, suggests Leadbeater, is encouraging farmers to allow a diversity of flowering plants around the edges of their fields.

"We've seen that gardens, which are very diverse and varied, are really good for bees, and we could look at trying to turn the countryside into something that's a little bit more similar to them," she said.


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.

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