The original social network: Bee hives

Curious Fact: In addition to the famous “bee dance” by which a bee tells her sisters where the good stuff is, bees also communicate through an elaborate system of pheromones (chemical signals) that pass from one bee to another mouth-to-mouth and antenna-to-antenna. The pheromone messages can radiate outward as “news” is passed from one group of bees to another, based on the urgency and interest of her message–much the way that news passes from one “friend” to another in social media based on the urgency and interest of the message. In fact, one could say that bees invented social media and viral marketing.

Here’s how it works. On a warm, sunny morning, anywhere from a few thousand to several tens of thousands of sterile female bees will storm out of a bee colony and spread out over an approximately 2-mile radius to forage (while others stay home to tend the queen and her children), the way that humans in any part of the world may emerge and spread out to their respective jobs. Some will return to previous work sites, where they begin collecting nectar, pollen, sap, and/or water for use in the hive. Others will scout out new locations, exploring the surroundings in search of as-yet untapped resources. There does not appear to be any top-down assignment of duties here–the queen does not, as far as we know, tell anyone where to go. To the bees, most likely, it seems as though they each simply do what they are in the mood to do or what seems important to them.

Some bees may discover a small clump of lavender that they will harvest and bring back to the hive. Others may discover a large source of sap for glue (used to seal up drafty spots in the hive). A few may visit a blackberry thicket and discover that the blackberries are in full bloom and ready for harvest.

Excited, the bees return to the hive with a load of sap, pollen, or honey, as well as an announcement. As soon as they step in the entrance, each bee is immediately surrounded by a group of other bees eager to hear her news (her “friend” group, though unlike humans this group may contain different individuals each time). A lavender carrier may announce her pride at having collected such a delectable product, and begin moving upward through the hive to deliver her load to a house bee. A few bees in her friend group decide to go get some lavender of their own, but based on the lavender girl’s level of excitement, they know this is not big news and don’t bother passing it on.

The sap bees arrive with great excitement: This is the largest source of sap they have found all year. They pass the message to their group, waggling and dancing and exuding pheromones: “Sap! We found sap! It’s HUGE!” Their friends like the news, but they already feel like the hive is pretty well sealed and anyway, they’re beginning to hear trickles of something even more interesting. Only a few bother to pass the news on to their friends.

The blackberry bees, however, have brought this: There is enough of a harvest to keep hundreds of bees busy for days collecting critical nourishment for the precious children and to store up for next winter. They waggle and dance, and exude vigorous pheromones that practically shout: “The blackberry blossom harvest is ON!! Party sixty yards to the Southwest! It’s gonna be HOT!” A few of their friends are already busy and excited about what they’re in the middle of. But others are infected by the enthusiasm and begin vigorously passing the message to their own friend groups: “OMG BLACKBERRY blossoms! Hurry!” and “Blackberries really? LOL I totally HEART blackberries!” The pheromone messages are passed from group to group. The news becomes viral and soon, hundreds and then thousands of bees are zigging toward the blackberry patch buzzing with excitement.

And Zuckerberg thinks he’s so smart.

2 responses to “The original social network: Bee hives

  1. I really enjoyed your writing, it is as much of a gift as your suburban homesteading topic. I live one block off of Main Street in a very Tourist town, Fredericksburg Texas. I have two Kenyan long hive Beehives, a couple of Muscovy ducks, and about 35 Icelandic Chickens, a fairly large garden, all organic, where we grow garlic, onions, potatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, horseradish, rosemary, thyme, several mints, sage, dill etc. and I run a Christian Coffee House as a ministry and a way to giveback to the Lord for all He has done for me. Thanks again for all of your writing, the very storylike description of the honey bees brought me to a childlike excitement and love of the bees.

    Andy in Fredericksburg

    • Hi Andy! Thanks for stopping by. It sounds like you’ve got quite the homestead going yourself! I’d love to hear more about the Kenyan long hive beehives–are those similar to the top bar style hives that are becoming popular? I’m glad you enjoy my writing, and I hope you’ll stick around. I’m working on a couple new pieces now, so I should have updates here soon!

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