Honey bees have long been admired by humankind for their industriousness. The beehive has served as a symbol of organization and hard work throughout history, and common sayings like “busy as a bee” that persist today indicate we still perceive bees to be hard workers. The state of Utah has been particularly fond of the beehive analogy. It officially adopted the beehive as the state emblem in 1959, although it featured the beehive on its seal as early as the 1850s when it was still a territory. The city of Manchester, England adopted the worker bee as an emblem during the industrial revolution, and a traditional skep is featured prominently in the stained glass of parliamentary building of British Columbia in Canada.
Temporal polytheism, the process by which individual bees transition through different “jobs” over the course of their lifetime, means that bees complete a diversity of tasks. But are all bees busy all of the time? The younger bees in a colony typically do the work inside the colony, including rearing brood and curing honey. Open up the colony and remove a frame, and you’ll see a lot of the house bees doing various tasks as well as many that are just kind of hanging out. Stand at the entrance of a colony on a sunny day, and you’ll certainly witness a lot of activity from the older bees in the hive. When conditions are suitable the foragers fly hard, covering many miles to accumulate nectar, pollen, water, and propolis for the colony.
At different times of the year, colony growth and contraction dynamics will be such that the number of bees available for particular tasks may exceed the number needed. Thus, some bees will be underutilized. Queen events or seasonal brood dynamics in the colony can lead to situations where there is an abundance of young bees but not a lot of brood to tend to. Foragers work very hard when resources are abundant and weather conditions are favorable, but they essentially take cold, wet, and windy days off and are also largely idle overnight in the hive.
This study used RFID tags on individual bees to track their location and monitor the foraging activity of colonies. One of their findings was that approximately 50% of the foraging activity was accomplished by only about 20% of the foragers. Their study demonstrates that the foraging effort is not evenly distributed, and some bees clearly worked harder than others. Even more interesting is that when the researchers removed the hardest working foragers from the colony, the other, previously lower workload bees increased their activity to compensate. This finding is fascinating in that it demonstrates that the flexibility of individuals allows the needs of the colony to be met even when a group of high performing individuals are removed. This research suggests that some of the bees may be holding back a little in foraging effort, thus prolonging their lifespan which may provide a measure of redundancy to the colony which could help overcome a sudden loss of foragers.
By holding some foragers in reserve, the colony could be protecting itself against an acute event causing the loss of foragers that could otherwise lead to precocious foraging, which is the premature transition of young bees into foragers. A different study demonstrated that precocious foragers performed poorly, leading to feedback loops where even more of the young bees attempted to forage, eventually depleting the colony of young bees and leading to a rapid decline in colony condition.
It may not be fair to try to anthropomorphize a colony of insects by applying terms like “lazy” or “industrious,” but it does seem like healthy bees demonstrate a capacity for both traits. Making honey when the sun shines, while also holding a little bit in reserve as a buffer against acutely stressful events allows colonies to be both productive and resilient.