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Social foraging in honey bees: how nectar foragers assess their colony's nutritional status


A honey bee colony operates as a tightly integrated unit of behavioral action. One manifestation of this in the context of foraging is a colony's ability to adjust its selectivity among nectar sources in relation to its nutritional status. When a colony's food situation is good, it exploits only highly profitable patches of flowers, but when its situation is poor, a colony's foragers will exploit both highly profitable and less profitable flower patches. The nectar foragers in a colony acquire information about their colony's nutritional status by noting the difficulty of finding food storer bees to receive their nectar, rather than by evaluating directly the variables determining their colony's food situation: rate of nectar intake and amount of empty storage comb. (The food storer bees in a colony are the bees that collect nectar from returning foragers and store it in the honey combs. They are the age group (generally 12–18 day old bees) that is older than the nurse bees but younger than the foragers. Food storers make up approximately 20% of a colony members.) The mathematical theory for the behavior of queues indicates that the waiting time experienced by nectar foragers before unloading to food storers (queue length) is a reliable and sensitive indicator of a colony's nutritional status. Queue length is automatically determined by the ratio of two rates which are directly related to a colony's nutritional condition: the rate of arrival of loaded nectar foragers at the hive (arrival rate) and the rate of arrival of empty food storers at the nectar delivery area (service rate). These two rates are a function of the colony's nectar intake rate and its empty comb area, respectively. Although waiting time conveys crucial information about the colony's nutritional status, it has not been molded by natural selection to serve this purpose. Unlike “signals”, which are evolved specifically to convey information, this “cue” conveys information as an automatic by-product. Such cues may prove more important than signals in colony integration.

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Seeley, T.D. Social foraging in honey bees: how nectar foragers assess their colony's nutritional status. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 24, 181–199 (1989).

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  • Queue Length
  • Nectar Forager
  • Honey Comb
  • Flower Patch
  • Comb Area