Sometimes Bumblebees Just Want to Do Their Own Thing

Bumblebees are strong communicators, but they don’t always listen

Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) in flight through Heather flowers Robert Pickett/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Much has been said of the bumblebee's dance, the wiggling, waggling maneuvers the tiny insects use to express themselves. Bumblebees are highly skilled communicators, and through scent and dance they can tell other bees in the hive the best spots to find food. The bees work as a team, and the hive is better off for it.

But strong communication is only useful if the others are listening, and, according to new research, sometimes bees just don't want to hear it.

In their research, ecologists Ellouise Leadbeater and Claire Florent found that buff-tailed bumblebees will ignore other bees' advice and stick to foraging flowers based on their own experience, unless strong environmental change gives them a good reason not to. A foraging bee won't actually listen to the advice of the hive, they'll just take the others' opinions into consideration in light of their own experiences, the scientists say:

[W]e found no evidence that social information is particularly important when personal information fails to produce rewards (a “copy when established behaviour is unproductive” strategy). Instead, bees used social information specifically to complement personal information.

Contrary to popular conception, it seems, bees have a neat little independent streak, says the Economist. “Social insects are often dismissed as slaves to the collective mind of the hive. But individual members of colonies do have brains and are technically capable of making their own decisions.“