Evolution of communication: decoding the honeybee tremble dance

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Elli Leadbeater

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

Elli Leadbeater's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Steve Portugal

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

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Project Description:

The societies of honeybees (Apis spp.) are microcosms of divided labour that are considered “superorganisms” because individual insects play roles analogous to the germ-line and soma, such that the colony behaves as a single entity1. Self-organization at this extraordinary level requires sophisticated communication networks, so it is not surprising that the celebrated “waggle dance”- one of the most extraordinary examples of signaling in the animal world- evolved here2. Yet bees within the colony respond to at least two other lesser-known communication systems- the tremble dance 3 and the stop signal 4. Neither is well-understood, because until recently, tracking such signals within colonies that contain thousands of individuals was logistically not possible. Now, however, network analysis methods developed in the social sciences open the door to deciphering these cryptic communication pathways for the first time. The tremble dance in particular is a clearly defined, easily detectable signal that is performed by foraging bees on return to the hive after a variety of experiences. In this project, our specific aim will be to understand why it evolved, how it functions and what it achieves within the superorganismal societies of these remarkable social insects.

The project will involve extensive empirical summer fieldwork within the UK, carried out on campus and the surrounding parkland. Depending on the student’s interests, there will be the opportunity to develop computational network analysis skills, and/or to contribute to our understanding of how anthropogenic stressors disrupt the societies of social insects.

Policy Impact of Research:

The key outcome of this project will be an understanding of the evolution of a remarkable and unique signaling system, in a social insect that has become a model for understanding social behavior at its most complex. On an ecological level, this information is key to understanding the mechanisms that drive one of our most important pollinators to food.

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