The bucket list of the male honeybee, known as a drone, is a simple one. Their main goal in life is to achieve the act of aerial acrobatics that is mating with a queen bee in mid-air. It’s believed that pheromones are capable of luring in upwards of 10,000 amorous drones – but given this understanding was built on research using lures, scientists have wondered if the methodology was interrupting the bees’ natural behavior. Now, a new study published in the journal iScience has become the first to track the flight paths of individual drones without lures to see what they really get up to when they go looking for love.
Led by scientists from Queen Mary University of London and Rothamsted Research, the study employed the help of radar technology to track male honeybees, revealing insights surrounding their natural mating behaviors for the first time. The process involved strapping a little transponder to the back of individual honeybees which pinged back to a transmitter, revealing the bees’ positions. Using radar, the researchers could see where the drones were every three seconds with an accuracy of around two meters (6.6 feet). This data could then be applied to the team’s knowledge of the experimental field, so that they could allocate an accurate GPS position for each bee.
The results revealed that the male honeybees had an alternating flight strategy that would flick between simple straight lines and wild and varied loops. It turned out the episodes of swirling flight were associated with four locations that the researchers hypothesize could act like “leks” for the drones. A lek is like a performance area where living things get together to find a mate. Birds are famous for their leks, upon which males perform bizarre, comical dances to impress a lady (that of the greater prairie chicken looks like a basketball is taking tap lessons).
The four sites where the drones were meeting for their looping lek behavior were found to be sustained over a two-year period, suggesting that male bees routinely meet to perform in this way and hopefully mate with queens (who keep their crowns by tooting, didn't ya know?). While the congregations are set, a single honeybee may move from one group to another within a single flight, which is not something seen in vertebrate lek behavior. "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take" is presumably a mantra for ambitious male honeybees.
"Our findings suggest drones locate congregation areas as early as their second ever flight, without apparent extensive search,” said supervisor of the project Professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary, in a statement. “This implies that they must be able to get the information required to guide them to a congregation from observing the landscape close to their hive. In the future, we will look at how they accomplish this feat.”
The novel lek behavior of lovemaking honeybees lands on a pertinent date, as on May 20 we recognize the UN designated World Bee Day, which aims to bolster our appreciation for pollinators and motivate change to keep their population stable. To that end, what could be more fitting than a spot of bees getting’ jiggy with it.