We could probably all take a lesson on working in harmony with others — and you'd be hard-pressed to find a species that does that better than bees. I always knew about this idea superficially, but recently I saw it in action while I was checking out the cool transparent bee hive at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, during a tour of their urban beekeeping program.
As I was peering in, I couldn't help but notice a space between two sections of the hive, and over this gap, two bees had intertwined their legs, forming a bridge for their fellow workers to walk cross. (The spot was too narrow for the bees to fly through.) Since I had an expert on hand, I had to ask: What were the bees doing?
According to Julia Common, who's the cofounder of Hives for Humanity (and the hotel's beekeeper) the bees were festooning.
"What's that?" I asked. Common then filled me in on this and a few other ways bees work together. I found the buzzing bees an inspiration as she spoke. Here's just a few reasons why:
1. Bees work together to bridge gaps
"Bees are moving just about all the time in a colony," said Common, but they are quite mathematical about their spaces. "There's this thing called bee space, which is a measurement, 3/8 of an inch, discovered back in 1886. Bee space is the amount of space they need to function properly. Too much space, they'll fill it with wax. Too little space, they can't move. But if you leave 3/8 of an inch, they'll use it. All of our equipment must leave that amount of space for them, otherwise it can be quite messy — it's really important to the bees," said Common. When there's a larger gap to cross, and there's not room to fly, they'll festoon by connecting the hooks on their legs to form a link over spaces, making "chains like workmen at a scaffolding," said Common.
You can see bees festooning for yourself in the video above.
2. They keep each other warm, and they keep each other cool
Bees not only change jobs over the course of the year as they grow from young bees to more experienced ones and the seasons change, they also pinch-hit when necessary. When it gets cold enough, "Bees make a cluster like a basketball, and the inside is very warm," said Common. Individual bees rotate in and out of the center of the cluster and they "take turns on the outside being chilly." Conversely, if it's too hot, they will all start fanning to get rid of the hot hair inside the hive.
3. Bees share where the food is
"Bees are constantly in communication," said Common. That includes sharing where food resources are — they don't keep information like that to themselves. When they find nectar sources, "...they come back into the colony and do a dance. In the dark, they can't see it, but they can smell the pattern. That tells the other bees the direction of the food, what the food is and how long it's going to take to get there (or if there's a problem, they can sound an alarm). That waggle dance, as it's called, is just one more way the bees work as a group.
4. They bathe each other
As MNN's Ben Bolton wrote, an accidentally honey-covered bee will get cleaned off pretty efficiently by other worker bees. This comes as no surprise to Common who says grooming is a natural behavior — and you can see it in the video above of a bee cleaning itself, just like a cat!) Knowing how smart bees are about cleanliness also allows us to help them when they need it: "A big problem for bees are mites which parasitize them," says Common. Since it's impossible to dose every bee with a medicine, Common will drench as many of the bees as she can with sugar syrup that contains medicine to fight mites. As the bees clean one another off, they all ingest the medicine. This attention to hygiene also helps them to smell if something is wrong with baby bees and to remove dead bodies from the hive before they cause disease or other problems.
5. They care for the sick
Infertile female bees work all day — their jobs are related to their ages. When born, her first job is to clean out the cell she's emerged from, and then she becomes a household bee who makes royal jelly for the queen. After that, her wax glands develop and she can make wax and build comb. Her next job might be becoming a nurse bee to feed the young, or she might look after sick bees. "If they care for sick bees, they never do any other jobs because they could be contaminated," says Common. So while other bees go on to do other jobs, for nurse bees, that's the end of the line, job-wise.
Like humans, bees are incredibly social creatures, who will protect the ones they love and will work together for common goals. It's worth remembering that we can learn plenty from them.