Taking care of bzzzness
Story by Carly Vester
Photo by Carey Rose
Sunny days in the Western residence halls have one downside: leave the screenless windows open, and it is an invitation for little buzzing insects to fly in. As warm weather lingers, one can often hear complaints about these insects that get trapped inside rooms. While bees may bob and bumble the same way humans fumble down the stairs in the dark, they actually have a better sense of direction than we do, even with a GPS right in front of our faces.
“Bees get a pattern and they will always keep the pattern in and out of the hive,” says Bonnie Swanson, a beekeeper from the Stanwood-Camano Island Beekeepers Association. Bees primarily rely on their pheromones, a bodily chemical that is secreted in an interpretable scent, for navigation. This scent can warn or attract others, or act as a guide to find a way back to the hive. The queen honeybee produces her own pheromone in the hive so her workers are able to identify it, Swanson says.
A flight pattern called the bee dance is another way bees communicate. In this dance, a worker bee will bumble in a pattern of squiggly lines and circles telling the other bees where it found a good batch of flowers to pollinate. Where humans have maps, bees have a directional dance.
Once bees have collected their food of pollen and nectar, they store it in the comb of the hive, Swanson says. This enables the bees to have food during the winter when flowers are not blooming and available to pollinate. “Bees do not fly in the rain, when it’s windy, [or] at night,” Swanson explains. “If you don’t have sustained weather of 50 degrees or better, the dandelions may look really good, but they don’t have the nutrition that they need.”
Bees can lose their sense of direction and be in serious trouble if their navigation system cannot guide them properly. The number of bees has been declining in the past 60 years because of colony collapse disorder, a condition in which many bees leave their hives and never return. Beekeepers and scientists are unsure of the exact reasons, but a potential cause may be mites, or pollenating a pesticide-sprayed field. “The bees may lose a special ability for visual cues, sensory cues — it somehow could get messed up,” Swanson explains.
Despite the syndrome, bees still bumble their way around Swanson and her husband’s hives in Whatcom County. Whether it leads to a residence hall window or a sweet-smelling flower, honeybees will continue to pollinate and communicate using their excellent sense of direction.