A worker honeybee performs the waggle dance to tell her hive mates where the best food is located. That suggests the dance can indicate areas of the landscape that are healthy, at least in terms of food for pollinators.
To test this, Margaret Couvillon and her colleagues from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, videoed and decoded 5484 waggle dances from three laboratory-maintained honeybee colonies living in 94 square kilometres of rural and urban landscapes. They divided the area into various conservation schemes, regulated by the UK government, and mapped which areas were most frequented by the bees over two years.
"Using honeybee colonies as biomonitors for environmental health is an idea that researchers have been interested in," says James Nieh from the University of California, San Diego. "However, this study uses a far larger sample size and examines the data in a more sophisticated way."
Happy foraging Most honeybees cast their votes for Castle Hill, a nature reserve rich in wildflowers, 2 kilometres from the hives. The bees also preferred to feed on farms covered by Higher Level Stewardship schemes. Such farms are supposed to set aside part of their land for wildlife and wildflowers, which may explain why the bees liked them.
However the bees did not seem particularly enticed by farms covered by Organic Entry Level Stewardship. While organic farming may seem harmonious with healthy wildlife, these schemes involve regular cutting and mowing in the first few years. "What that probably means for honeybees is that there are no flowers at all, just short grass," says Couvillon.
Listening in on honeybee conversations could be a quick and cost-effective way of evaluating costly management schemes that aim to make lands more wildlife-friendly, Couvillon says. What's more, honeybees are generalists, so identifying areas that they prefer could help other pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.
But honeybees may not tell us everything we need to know, says Lars Chittka of Queen Mary, University of London. He says they probably prefer whichever area offers the most nectar or pollen, regardless of whether it is a diverse wildflower meadow or a vast monoculture. "So what's good for the honeybee is not necessarily good for any other species."
Extract from New Scientist website