In Part 1 of “The Honey Bee’s Good Taste” on this blog, I described WHERE the honey bee’s gustatory receptors are located (on the antennae, the mouthparts, and the two front feet); WHAT these sensors can taste (sugars, proteins, lipids, salts), and HOW they function.
Here, the story continues with the WHY and WHEREFORE of honey bee taste.
Finding and Choosing the Best Food
The most obvious role of good taste is in the choice of food sources. Bees select high-quality nectar with a desirable concentration of particular sugars and the best pollen, which is their only source of proteins but also supplies lipids, vitamins, and certain minerals.
On a fundamental level, they must distinguish edible from inedible items, and beneficial substances from those that are potentially toxic or harmful.
Assessing Water Quality
Foragers with the specific task of collecting water for the colony choose sources that contain mineral salts or other components that are needed at any given time. For example, sodium, magnesium, and potassium are essential to the developing larvae.
Bees collect various plant resins to make propolis. Although no specific receptors have been identified to date that respond to the taste of resins, it is likely that the specialized foragers collecting the sticky stuff rely on both taste and odor of terpene derivatives other components to make their choice. They gather droplets that ooze from leaf buds, twigs, or bark of certain trees and various other plants, which produce these resins to protect themselves and to seal and heal their own wounds.
Similarly, receptors that might detect the taste of beeswax have not yet been discerned in honey bees, but because hive workers process the wax that they produce from their wax glands by chewing it, it is possible that they taste and react to at least some of this building-material’s components, such as hydrocarbons, fatty acids, esters, or alcohols, to carry out their task.
Every honey bee colony has its own chemical signature—that is, its own taste and scent. It is in part genetic, but also determined by the colony’s diet and complete sharing of food, and by the local floral fragrances that cling to the foragers’ hairs and cuticle.
This chemical signature allows nestmates to recognize each other and to distinguish bees that arrive from other colonies.
Guard bees on duty at the hive entrance press their challenge to any bee attempting to go inside if its scent and taste profile are not familiar.
An intruder is often pushed and pummeled by a series of guards continuing the challenge, and through that contact ultimately might acquire enough of the colony’s scent that it can blend in with the resident population with no further resistance.
Ted Hooper (Guide to Bees and Honey) explains that this is essentially the principle employed when a beekeeper combines two colonies by the “newspaper method.”
Each pheromone can consist of a single chemical or a combination of up to dozens of different compounds. Further, these messages may be used in combination, or in series, or by different castes, roles, and ages of individual bees to convey a particular meaning—-that is, to elicit a particular response from the recipients.
The colony cannot function without this effective communication system to coordinate each aspect of honey bee society and life, including mating, swarming, development of brood, foraging, defense, orientation, construction and maintenance of the hive and its wax comb, etc.
Whether on wired frame (top image) or frame with foundation (bottom), the task of comb-building inside the dark hive requires sophisticated coordination of the workers via chemical communication (images: beekeepinglikeagirl.com and buzzingacrossamerica.com)
Using pheromones to communicate allows the colony to accomplish its usual tasks and necessities through the seasons, and to deal with unforeseen events, as well.
All of the colony members employ this chemical language: queens communicate back and forth with workers and drones, workers with workers, adult bees with brood, and so on.
However, due to the different life-tasks required of the “royal” castes, the queens and drones do not require as many taste receptors as do their “blue-collar” working sisters.
Other senses are also involved in communication: for example, sounds and contact are important within the dark chambers of the hive, and visual signals out in the sunlit world. All the various input is integrated in the brain for the bee’s rich and well-informed existence within its small world.
There is still more research to be carried out to fully understand the honey bee’s sense of taste. Considering the universe of substances to which bees are exposed and need to avoid, ignore, or make use of at different seasons, phases, ages, and conditions of colony life, we might expect that they have a more sensitive and wide-ranging capability than is currently described. I am always eager to learn more about this flavorful and engaging topic.
….And I’m glad WE don’t have to taste with our FEET!