Honeybee Masterclass: The Secret Dance of Communication and Collaboration (Part II).

THIS IS PART II IN A SERIES OF LIFE MANAGEMENT articles inspired by the cute honeybees.

My first blog shared some amazing life lessons by looking at the wonderful role of worker bees.

You won’t get part 2 fully if you haven’t read Part 1. So, please come back after reading, “Sweet Lessons from Honey Bees: Work Like a Worker Bee.”

In this part, we are going to look into the beautiful world of honey bees’ internal communication and collaboration-often viewed as “soft skills.”

HONEY BEES ARE SOCIAL INSECTS that normally live in a colony called a hive. A single honeybee hive could consist of anywhere between 30000 to 60000 bees living together. The hive often functions as a single entity with the majority of members sharing just one goal: to keep the colony healthy, progressive, and productive.

A healthy honey bee colony functions as a buzzing, well-oiled machine. At the heart of this exceptional collaboration and cooperation is effective honey bee communication. This objective mandates them to be excellent team players, which means they need to be great at communication, and believe me they are the best!

Nothing may be more essential to the survival and growth of the hive than ongoing communication. For interpersonal communication, the honeybees employ some remarkable communication styles and believe me each one is remarkable and amazing. Before we learn some life lessons, we need to understand the communication models. Let’s begin!

Body movements: Dance like nobody is watching.

One very interesting way honey bees communicate with each other is through dance. Yes, it is extraordinary, that an insect which is just half-inch long performs a series of movements, known as the “Waggle Dance,” to inform other members about the location of food sources.

Worker bees fly from the hive in search of pollen and nectar. Now, if it is successful in finding a vital supply of food, they return back to the colony and start dancing on the honeycomb.

The dance steps go like this: It first walks straight and then starts moving in a circle shaking its body (hence the name waggle) producing a buzzing sound with the beat of its wings. It then moves counterclockwise in a semicircle, returning to the point of origin.

The bee then repeats the same process on the next circuit but moves clockwise this time. The entire dance is similar to a figure-eight pattern, vibrating its wings, and angle its body in relation to the sun. This distance and speed of the dance communicate the distance and direction of the food source to others.

Like me, you too may be wondering as to what the bee is saying to fellow forager bees? Let’s understand!

The straight walk on the honeycomb is the position of the sun, the dancer bee is saying, “My dear friends, when you‘ll exit the hive, the flower colony is fifty degrees to the right of the sun.” It is conveying “which way” and the time length of the waggle dance shows the distance to the flower patch conveying “how far.”

It’s like she is telling her sisters, “Well, I have found a site and I feel it’s interesting and worth exploring.”

Let’s not boast about our modern GPS. Amazingly the bees have had their GPS built-in their bodies for millions of years. Thanks, nature, for it!

Not only this, to prove their point the dancing bee after its waggle dance would then share some of the foraged food with other members. This communicates the quality of the food source available at the place.

Karl von Frisch, a zoology professor from Germany was the first to discover this dance language of honey bees. For his groundbreaking finding, he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

The chemical solution: Pheromones.

Another important way to transmit information and communicate with one another is through odor cues called pheromones. What are pheromones? The pheromones are mixtures of chemical substances produced and released by bees through 15 known glands in their body. Each type of pheromone serves a different purpose and conveys a different message. The main purpose of releasing these chemical messengers is to cause changes in the physiology and behavior of the receiving bees. The receiver bee uses its antenna and other body parts to receive them.

These pheromones are grouped into two categories: releaser and primer. The releaser pheromones temporarily affect the recipient’s behavior and elicit an immediate response from the receiving bee. The primer pheromones have a long-term impact on the physiology of the receiver bee.

The honey bee queen is the primary reproductive female in the hive colony. The pheromones produced by the queen are largely responsible for the control and regulation of the entire colony. She emits pheromones to attract and encourage male bees to mate with her, also to keep other female worker bees disinterested in mating and reproduction with drones.

The queen also releases a specific and unique odor that lets the rest of the community know that she is healthy and alive. When her scent vanishes, it’s a signal that the queen has died. This leads other worker bees to develop an interest in mating and lay unfertilized eggs until a new queen takes the throne.

When the queen dies several worker bees develop sexual organs and lay unfertilized drone eggs until a new queen takes the thrones.

These pheromones also play a crucial role in the defense of the colony. When a worker bee stings it releases a typical pheromone that acts as an alarm for other nearby bees thus alerting them to the presence of the threat. Now you know why any disturbance to the hive agitates the entire colony and attack the intruder. Have you seen beekeepers using smokers when they work around the hives: the smoke masks the scent of any alarm pheromones, thus preventing the entire colony to fight back?

In another scientific research, it was observed that the honey bees use odor cues from food sources to pass on the information to other bees. The researchers believe that the foraging bees carry on their bodies the unique smells of flowers they visited back to the hive. And that the odors must be present when the bee is performing the waggle dance or else the dance won’t work.

Thomas Seeley Findings.

 Thomas Seeley is a biologist at Cornell University. For more than 40 years he has studied honey bees and is highly respected for his levels of experimentation and research on bees. He is the author of various books on honey bees. His contribution can be recognized from the fact that a species of bee was named after him in 1997. He has uncovered a lot of secret principles honey bees use to communicate and make smart decisions.

One of his interesting revelations is that when a foraging bee comes after visiting a high-quality food source site, it will perform waggle dance with lots of passion and speed, even making 200 circuit movements or more. But if she finds an average or mediocre food site, she will perform fewer circuits. The passion and enthusiasm are to attract attention and encourage more bees to go and check out her claim. If she succeeds and when the second lot of bees return back after site inspection, they persuade more bees to go and investigate the site.

Another principle he observed was flexibility. Once the foraging bee discovers a new site, it travels back and forth from site to hive and back. Every time she returns, she performs a waggle dance to win over other bees. But, each time the number of dance circuits declines, until it stops dancing completely.

Just close your eyes softly and imagine for a moment. How beautiful and amazing the whole communication system is? Isn’t it!

The bees represent an awe-inspiring, heart-stirring, and hair-raising example of how communication is key to survive and thrive in an organization.

Let me share some important lessons we can learn from bees to improve our internal communication and collaboration- the so-called “soft skills” which are essential skills for success in your personal and professional life.

Free flow of information and ideas.

A strong organization is made up of its people who align their energy, efforts, and resources collectively behind the best information, ideas, and insights. But, for this to happen the employees must be made available the best information as quickly as possible. The information or idea must be disseminated fast for better decision-making. If you look around, you’ll see how many organizations are exactly doing the opposite. Considering information as a power source, those who have it just want to control it and they do it by hiding it.

Look at the bees, they don’t hide the important information about food sources and selfishly feast on the flowers alone and stockpile them separately. On the contrary, she will waste no time and rush immediately back home to share it with other team members. Their body language will make you believe that they are incentivized and highly motivated to share the information as soon as possible. A great example of how unselfishness leads to growth and prosperity.

Are you as a leader incentivizing information and knowledge sharing within your organization like bees? Stockpiling of information can be very dangerous for the health of any enterprise. Do your people take on the dance(work) floor to share their ideas and information. If not create your own form of dance ritual for open communication.

Simplicity and clarity                                                                                                                                                

Communicating simple and clear messages to your colleagues and co-workers is the other key lesson that bees teach us. With an engaging dance, a worker bee can inform her sisters: how far is the site, the direction and the quality of the food source.  Like the bees, communicate your ideas or information with clarity until it sinks in.

As a leader, if you really want your message to inspire and motivate them, then you need to do it in ways that capture their hearts and minds. This is the mantra for maximum buy-in and coordinated team efforts. Create your form of the waggle dance to communicate and connect to your team members. Be open to new information and join in when others perform their version of waggle dance.

The power of collective decision-making.

Another lesson is how to harness the power of collective decision-making. Knowing a bee colony, it is easier to think that the queen bee rules supreme and that all major decisions are taken by her, but this is far from reality. In summer, when the number of bees in a hive swell, the hunt for a new home begins.

The site exploration begins with the worker bees flying out and far to explore new possible spots. Once identified, the bees return from their expeditions to the hive and perform the famous waggle dance to convey this information about the potential new location to the rest.

The rest of the workers follow the trail to the location and if they like it too, they give their consent by dancing. The bees will relocate to their new home only when a unanimous decision has been reached and act as a single unit to call the new site home.

A great example of decentralized and collective decision-making.

More life insights to come in Part- III! So, keep following and reading.

Please let me know your thoughts and opinions on this article in the comments box below.

Happy Free Flow Communication.


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