Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pheromones 1: the Chemical Language of Bees

One of the things I have been documenting at Ecoversity is the behavior of bees. You can see some of the material at Ecoversity TV.

When looking at the bees on a big screen tv, slowed down to about 10% of the speed you see and hear things that you miss when the bees move at their normal speed –too fast. For example you can recognize that each bee is an individual with a face and features. Bees are social animals that see, touch and recognize each other, very much like humans. The bee buzzing sound when slowed down becomes audible and differentiated to the human ear in a different way: there actually is a tremendous variety in sounds made by bees, it’s like a chorus with different singing voices weaving their way through. The bee songs at that speed are really very much like whale songs.

But the language of the bees that is probably most similar in its complexity with the human language is the chemical communication through pheromones among bees. Pheremone in greek means: 'to bear a hormone", it is a trigger of behavior.

The bees have a series of 15 different glands that can each secrete a series of chemicals that are known as pheromones. We humans understand the meaning of some of the distinct chemicals in terms of bee behavior. For instance we have identified the koschevnikov gland which produces a powerful alarm pheromone which is secreted when bees are stinging and which induces many other bees to behave aggressively. Or the nasonov gland which produces a sweet rose smelling attractant that orients worker bees in foraging, hive identification and stabilization of swarms.

It seems to me that the bee pheromones are similar to letters in human language. Different combinations have different meanings. Though we humans can kind of decipher the pheromone letters individually, we have no idea how complex and 'intelligent' the bee chemical language may truly be.

One day my friend Stephen from Biomagic and I were talking about the bee pheromones in the context of the Colony Collapse Disorder. (Before I go into this heavy subject let me first say something positive: the topbar hives at Ecoversity seem very healthy to me. I looked at them this morning and in the unusually warm November here in Santa Fe the bees are still busy collecting.)

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been mysterious...whole colonies of bees are disappearing altogether all at once.
Isn't it reasonable to speculate that all kinds of chemicals set loose in our environment are interfering in the subtleties of pheromone based communication among bees? Not just a few of the really terrible culprits such as the nicotinoid pesticides that are being produced (by the same people who bring us aspirin (Bayer) among others). All kinds of petrochemicals that are set loose in our high intensity fossil fuel society, may well interfere in the language between bees.... they may even disturb the chemical communication between flowers and bees.

For years there have been reports of disoriented bees, one way or another. Could it be that the bees are experiencing their version of the tower of Babel?

In some of the coming blogs I would like to speculate more about pheromones, and their role not just in bee behavior, but also in humans and other animals.

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