The New York Times/Science By James Gorman September 8, 2014
The honeybee hive would not seem to be the place to look for individuality, flexibility in job duties and social mobility. But by using new techniques for analyzing bee behavior, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently found that the life of a bee is less rigidly determined than had been thought.
They first discovered that an elite 20 percent of foragers do 50 percent of all the foraging, and then found that membership in this group was surprisingly flexible. When the elite bees were removed from the hive, less hard-working bees raised the level of their activity and a new elite emerged.
Gene E. Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the university, said he and other researchers set out to look at the behavior of bees in a new way partly because of “an increasing appreciation of the role of the individual in social insects.”
Teasing out the differences in individual levels of foraging activity required some new tools, both for observing the bees and for analyzing the data.
To work on the first part of the problem, Dr. Robinson said, Paul Tenczar, a retired computer entrepreneur and enthusiastic citizen scientist, joined the lab. He worked with scientists to devise a kind of E-ZPass system for bees involving tiny electronic ID tags, entry and exit tubes for a hive, and laser scanners to track the bees as they passed through the tubes (think toll plazas).
But even with the technology functioning at a high level to track the bees’ activity, analytical tools had to be developed to understand and interpret the data, Dr. Robinson said.
The results, which the team of scientists reported in the September issue of Animal Behaviour, showed first that there was an elite group among the foraging bees.
Then, by removing those top performers, the team found that other bees took their place. It was, said Dr. Robinson, “elitism with a populist streak.”
They also found, in mining the data, that over the life of an individual bee, patterns of foraging activity fluctuated and that individual bees had different life histories.
The approach to studying behavior using so-called big data is like that used by Internet companies to track people’s shopping behavior. Such new techniques, Dr. Robinson said, showed the power of “massive amounts of surveillance” to “reveal previously inaccessible data about individual behavior” in insects. And just when bees thought Facebook had ignored them.