Some Bees Are Busier Than Others

By Elizabeth Preston | July 25, 2014 8:45 am

bee hive

It may be time to leave “busy as a bee” with other dubious animal similes like “happy as a clam” and “drunk as a skunk.” That’s because some bees, it turns out, aren’t all that busy. A small group of hive members do the bulk of the foraging, while their sisters relax at home. But their lifestyles aren’t permanent. If the busy bees disappear suddenly, the lazier ones will step up to take their place.

Scientists figured this out—somewhat incredibly—by gluing tiny RFID tags to over a thousand honeybees. (An RFID tag is the same miniature transponder that a vet might inject into your dog, that’s replacing barcodes on some merchandise and library books, and that makes your public transit card work.) Each beehive in the experiment had a pair of laser scanners over a walkway at its entrance. As bees passed through, they were recorded like items in a checkout lane. Using two scanners let the scientists tell whether bees were coming or going.

rfid bee

Two RFID tags (for good measure) on the back of a worker bee.

Paul Tenczar, a researcher in Gene Robinson’s lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues at the university set up five experimental bee colonies. Each colony started with about 2,000 day-old bees, a subset of which were tagged. For the next month, the bees busily (it seemed) came and went, flying to nearby flowers and bringing back nectar and pollen for the colony.

Data from the scanners at the hive entrances revealed that the bees weren’t all doing the same share of work. In fact, only about 20 percent of bees accounted for 50 percent of the foraging activity. This was consistent across all five hives—the workers doing half the foraging ranged from 16 to 21 percent.

This consistency suggests the other bees aren’t just slackers, Robinson says. There may be an optimal ratio of busy to less-busy bees—though it’s not clear why. “The harder a bee forages, the shorter its lifespan is,” he says. Some bees may hold back, while others work hard, to ensure that there’s a wider range of lifespans among the worker bees.

To find out whether the slackers were capable of doing more, the researchers removed a group of busy bees from two of the colonies. These colonies were kept in enclosed spaces, where the bees foraged at feeders. For one hour, the researchers killed every bee that came to a feeder. Since they were out foraging, these bees were more likely to be the busy kind—so the researchers could assume that they’d disproportionately removed hard-working bees from the colonies.

For the rest of that day, each colony had barely any visits to the feeders. But the next morning, foraging returned to its usual levels. The slacker bees had stepped up.

“When we removed the highly active bees, others increased their activity, as if to replace the ones we removed,” Robinson says. “This was surprising.” Initially, the scientists had assumed busier bees were special in some way—the A-team foragers of the colony. But they found that the other bees are able to work just as hard. As long there are enough busy bees, though, the rest will relax a little.

So “as strategically lazy as a bee” might be a better simile. As long as entomologists are ruining things, maybe they’ll learn next that bugs in a rug aren’t really snug.

Image: top, Rebecca Leaman (via Flickr); bottom, Tenczar et al.

Tenczar, P., Lutz, C., Rao, V., Goldenfeld, N., & Robinson, G. (2014). Automated monitoring reveals extreme interindividual variation and plasticity in honeybee foraging activity levels Animal Behaviour, 95, 41-48 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2014.06.006

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bees, math, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Gadgets
  • Douglas Smith

    for one hour they killed every bee that came to a feeder? BOOO!!!!

  • Karen

    WTF!!! They killed the bees when they’re in decline and threatened!?!? ASSHOLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Drchuck Ll

      This was a study group not naturally occurring bees. Read the article and shut it.

      • Karen

        What the hell are “not naturally occurring bees”? Were they alive or not? If they were alive, then they were killed and for no good reason to society; theirs or ours! How stupid can you be?????

        • epreston8

          This seems like a good time to remind everyone that Discover’s comment policy requires you to be courteous and refrain from profanity. (Also, please refer to my comment above about why killing these bees didn’t affect the survival of their colonies.) Thank you!

  • epreston8

    To clarify, the worker bees only live for about a month anyway. And since they’re sterile, killing them doesn’t remove any reproductive potential. So killing a fraction of the workers from each colony, as the scientists did, shouldn’t affect the health of the colony as a whole. (And they could see from the foraging activity that it was business as usual one day later.)

    • Rietha Crafford

      This is dumb science….who the hell cares if the so called lazy bees step up to they “job”…….I keep honey bees and I don’t care if there are lazy bees or not. They all have a job to do, even those who is not leaving the hive. A bee’s first job after hatching is to clean her own cell so the queen can lay another egg in it place….then they start feeding and doing “house chores”. they only start leaving the hive after day 20-21

    • Rietha Crafford

      You have no bloody clue what you are talking about fool. No need to kill the bees. The forages ARE THE HIVE. How do you think the rest of the hive will survive with out the foragers…..they are the once bringing back the food to the nurse bees. Removing a hive, we always want to have all the foragers or you weaken the hive……………they are all fools, you included. WHO CARES IF THERE ARE LAZY BEES OR NO LAZY BEES. Useless science and fools who support this kind of science should be shot in the knees!!!



  • Nedward Marbletoe

    If they didn’t want to kill the bees they could have put them on ice for a day. Given the comments, maybe they’ll think about that next time.

    Pretty interesting result, though: colonies have reserves.

  • bee researcher

    As someone who works with bees: to perform the experiment without killing the bees would be more stressful for them. epreston8 is exactly right; worker bees are sterile, and foraging worker bees are already in the last few days of their lives (foraging is a huge physical stressor that leads to senescence fairly quickly.) Removing a bee from its natural social environment, the hive, for extended periods of time is a lot like taking a single cell out of the body and asking to live alone in a Petri dish–very stressful and unnatural. Keeping a bee on ice for an entire day would kill that bee. If adult forager bees were introduced into another hive as transplants, they would almost certainly be killed by the resident bees. Quickly and painless killing the relatively small number of bees removed in the experiment is actually the most reasonable and naturalistic choice.

    • Rietha Crafford

      They did not need to put the bees on ice or kill them….all they needed to o was to “capture” them and the next day release them

  • bee researcher

    I should add that I think it’s really great to see people supporting bees, including honey bees–all insect pollinators need our help right now. The hives that really need our thought and protection are the ones that are struggling to survive on limited floral resources, and the ones that people have exterminated out of ignorance or fear. If you want to support bees, look into hobby beekeeping, planting bee-friendly plants, and supporting more responsible agriculture! Research like this study is meant to help us understand better how bees behave and survive, so that we can do a better job of protecting them all in the long run.

  • Bindar A Dundat

    The data is not inconsistent with known bee behavior. ie A bee will forage from a certain resource area and stay with it until there is no forage left or it dies. Forage range varies from next to the hive to 2 miles away. It is obvious that a bee traveling 2 miles will be “less busy” when measured by trips than one foraging 100 feet away. So much for lazy bees.

    If you wanted to prove the “lazy bee” hypothesis, you need to run the first part of the experiment, in the enclosed space. If there is a large difference between like aged bees visiting the same feeder, then their point is proven. They may have but the author did not report that. What she reports they did, kill the bees that go to the feed for the first hour, is incomprehensible. What on earth did it prove?

    The conclusions the study jumps to seem unwarranted given this article’s
    information about the study. I’d read the study but I won’t spend $37
    for what appears to be junk science.

  • Quasar Jones

    By what standards is foraging deemed to be the only “work” bees do?

    It’s like saying that stay-at-home moms (and dads) are lazy, because they’re not out working a job. Or that only the lead cyclists on the Tour de France are doing any of the work — the supporting cyclists and cycling crews are all slackers. Huh?

    Every bee in a hive has got a job to do, from building comb structures to feeding the young; from defending the hive against invaders, to curing and capping honey; from attending to the queen, to regulating the temperature and humidity of the hive; from hive maintenance (such as removing mold/parasites/dead bees and patching holes with wax and propolis) to communicating information important to the whole hive (such as the preparations for a swarming or supersedure.) The wording of the article (strongly) suggests that any bees not foraging — even if to “ensure a wider range of lifespans” or for some other purpose — are merely sitting around waiting for food to be brought to them. Nothing could be further from the truth.



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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