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Honeybee Head-Butts Say More Than We Thought

New research shows honeybees not only warn nestmates about threats but also convey how deadly and how close those threats are.

By Evan Thomas | March 25, 2016

Honeybees dance to guide their nestmates to food. This "waggle dance" conveys direction and distance to nectar — but sometimes it gets interrupted.

If foraging bees encounter predators at a food source, they return to the nest and head-butt their dancing nestmates with a vibrated warning so fewer foragers will wander into the same trouble.

Researchers have known about the behavior since 2006.

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But according to new research published in PLOS Biology, these vibrating warning signals vary in pitch, frequency and duration depending on the threat.

The more dangerous a predator, the higher the pitch the warning signal is. And the closer the trouble is to the nest, the longer the vibration.

Up until now, this kind of evolved threat awareness had only ever been observed in vertebrates. The researchers say, "This is the first demonstration of such sophisticated inhibitory signaling or alarm signaling in an insect."

This video includes clips from the Georgia Tech College of ComputingUniversity of California San DiegoBeesOnTheNet / CC BY 3.0 and the U.S. National Parks Service and images from Getty Images, Stephen Wheeler / CC BY 2.0Aristides Silva / CC BY 3.0Simon Child / CC BY 3.0 and Les vieux garçons / CC BY 3.0.

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