57 Drs. Margaret Couvillon and Roger Schürch – Assessing habitat through honey bee dances. (in English)

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Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture. This next episode was recorded during National Pollinator Week, and if you remember the episode we had with Pollinator Partnership, one of the key aspects of National Pollinator Week is a call to action. One of the calls to action that we told a lot of people this week was the need to plant pollinator habitats in their backyards. But occasionally, people would ask, how effective would a small pollinator habitat be in the scheme of things?

And to get an answer to that question, I turn to Drs. Margaret Cuvillant and Roger Scherch from Virginia Tech. Now, I have long been an admirer of their work and I was really excited to have them on the show because they have remarkably braided a number of things together into this tool that can tell you how good specific habitats are in the context of a whole landscape. In this episode, you'll not only hear some really fascinating biology about honeybee dance language, which is a key component of their tool, but also how to take this behavior of honeybees and think about it in the context of a whole landscape, the choices that the bees are making, how they make those choices, and how we can use our understanding of that whole mechanism to get to this question of assessing the efficacy of restorations in landscapes. Hope you enjoy the episode. All right, welcome to Pollination Doctors Search and Cuvillant.

Speaker 2: Thanks very much. Thanks for having us. Happy to be here.

Speaker 1: Now, it's National Pollinator Week when we're recording this, and one of the things that we tell everybody who comes by a table, we tell them that building bee habitat, even if it's modest, is good for bees. But in the back of my mind, I always think bees don't respect property lines and it's unclear how you could assess these efforts, small ones, the medium side. It seems there's a challenge associated with being able to measure the benefits of restoration.

Speaker 2: A very good question. And because essentially what you're asking is how do we get to landscape level assessments when how do you define a landscape? A landscape can be essentially unlimited. And this was what I was facing when I started my postdoc in 2009 with Professor Fred Snoratnik, we wanted to look at how good the British countryside was for honeybees.

And just to sort of underscore your question, I want to propose a thought experiment. So let's say you want to say a large area for forage availability. If you're a traditional ecologist, one thing you could do is you could walk insects and you could catalog what flowers you see and how many of the different flowers. And then you have to collect nectar and pollen samples to try to get at how much each flower is producing.

And you have to account for competition. So see what insects are there how many and what's the load that they're removing. And if you can do all this and walk really fast, say a meter per second, and you crunch all these numbers, even if you do all that, we calculated that it would take someone over 1,600 days to cover 90 kilometers. And that's just a single time. Oh, that's great. This is why we turned to the honeybee. We had kind of an, I worked on why we thought that the honeybee would actually be able to do a lot of this hard work for us. So for one, the honeybee can fly very far to collect its food, routinely go several kilometers, but it can go as far as say 10 kilometers. Secondly, the honeybee is a generalist. It visits things that other things will also be visiting. But the most important reason is that the honeybee has the waggle dance. So they have a way of communicating to us that they have found something delicious to eat. So we set out to do a project that ultimately would give data on how good the countryside would be, but also to kind of run a pilot to see if the honeybee in fact can handle this massive problem that we just gave it. How do you assess at a landscape level the health of an area for feeding flower-visiting insects?

Speaker 3: I just wanted to quickly say something to the very first thing you said. You said that planting bee habits is good no matter how small and how you do that. And I wanted to point to a study that came out last year out of Germany where basically volunteer entomologists, amateurs, went out for 30 years and surveyed areas and collected flying insects.

And I'm sure you have maybe seen that study too. A 75% decline in flying insects in 30 years. And the remarkable thing about the study is that it was done in protected areas. So even in protected areas that are supposedly very good for pollinators that have an abundance of wildflowers etc. Such a decline could be detected. So I think the jury is very much out on what size you need to help the pollinators really in a substantial way. But to do that assessment I think Maggie's method is really solid.

Speaker 2: But if you're ever wondering does creating small garden habitat actually help the bees? I just want to say at its most basic for most of us who are living in the city we encounter wildlife in very minimal ways. We may have a pet or we hear some birds when we walk to our car. For some people, if you can create a garden that will attract flower-visiting insects your exposure to nature will increase tenfold. And I guess I find an inherent value in just that as well.

Oh yeah. So I always fall back on that even if I still think that it's sometimes difficult to put a number to the benefit of creating pollinator gardens for helping bees.

Speaker 1: That's a really good point and there's such delight in being able to go out and watch things. I think that's a really good point because, on these small scales, there are all these other benefits. But putting a number to it is difficult and it's you've raised this technique. Tell us a little bit about how that works because that seems remarkable that you could have gone in a bee colony and you could actually pull them. Where were you today?

Speaker 2: I guess the short answer is that we let the bees do the hard work for us. They go out, they survey the landscape and they report to their net. We just happen to be hanging around and eavesdropping on these conversations. In a little more detail we're using this behavior that's unique just to the honey bee.

It's waggle dance communication as a novel source of data. So we set up observation hives and glass-walled hives where we can observe what's going on inside. We allow the foragers complete access to the outside so they're just doing their thing. The honey bee has evolved to be both an excellent scout and an excellent evaluator. So by this I mean they're really good at finding forage if it's to be found even across a large area and they're equally good at assessing forage. And by this I mean they're going to, weigh the benefit of the forage at its most basic in terms of kind of caloric gain against the cost of the forage.

For example against the flight distance to collect it. And if it comes out strongly in the positive they will perform a dance. So in terms of weighing habitat, one key thing to remember is that the dance is a filtered signal. When we look at the waggle dance because not all foragers dance we're not finding out about all forage only the best forage at any given time.

Speaker 1: Oh okay. So there are bees that will fly out, find a patch, really rewarding and they will advertise it but there are some who are just going to come in and you don't see any, you can't figure out where they've been. They just run back in, drop their load, and go back out again. Is that correct?

Speaker 2: Exactly and you can even have a bee who's in the ladder category so she's visiting something and she comes back and does not perform a recruitment dance but over time she might start dancing. So perhaps reliability is something that tips the scales in favor of recruitment. So if she visits the same source over and over after a period of time she may start dancing herself. But the ultimate result is that every dance we see is a good dance and good can mean a lot of different things. We know it means it's energetically positive but also usually it's reliable and it's a safe source. Oh okay.

Speaker 1: So these dances are, so the bees go out, they find a really good patch of flowers and if it's really good and it's reliable, they've been there a couple of times, then they start this dance so you're kind of serving the landscape for the choices bits.

Speaker 2: That's right and so choices bit of course and this is a point that we can talk a little bit more about if you're interested. Choice is bits might change over time so at a time of year when there are a lot of choice bits the bar may be a little bit lower so it could be that you don't actually see a lot of dances because there are a lot of stuff that's around but at a time of year when there's not a lot that's available the beam against for something that isn't as calorically valuable.

Speaker 1: This sounds really complicated though. You must have bees going all over the place and dancers indicating a whole lot of resources being able to get back to this problem of like whether our small patch of garden is doing a great job must be mind-boggling. It's mind-boggling to me how one could do that. Tell us a little bit about the process of kind of working back down.

Speaker 3: Well I think one of the important bits is that when we collected the data we can then use statistical models to kind of filter out noise or noise that's inherent in the data so if you have bees collecting food very close by it's just more probable that they can do that. That they can explore nearby resources. So the further out they go the more valuable their information becomes and so we try to correct for the distance at which they forage to basically filter out that noise that happens very close by. So it takes more visits to a nearby resource to make it stand out in our landscape compared to maybe a resource that's further away to stand out.

Speaker 1: Oh yeah that makes sense. So the ones that if they're going to be recruiting to something a mile or two away that must indicate there must be a heavier weight for them to judge it like that.

Speaker 2: We have a weighing kind of at multiple levels. We let the bee do some weighing in the choice of whether or not to dance and in our analysis statistically we can do some weighing where we give a stronger vote to things that are further away.

Speaker 1: Okay and so presumably what this ends up looking like is some kind of well I know what it looks like. I've looked at some of your papers and maybe we could if there's a way we could put one of those maps up but it turns into a map. You have some way of evaluating the landscape. The bees go out they do their waggle dances they indicate their preferences and then you make some adjustments for scale and then you end up with a map that allows you to test these questions of how these habitats.

Speaker 3: That is right. So we basically end up with a map that has kind of hot spots of foraging corrected for the distance at which this foraging happened and then basically evaluate whether a certain spot is attractive to the bees. So because bees are only dancing for profitable resource distance is kind of an indicator of how hard it is to find forage in the landscape. And so without mapping you can kind of start looking at questions of when is it hard for bees to find food just by looking at the distance at which they forage and in our pilot study in England we've done exactly that and we found that as we progress from spring into summer it becomes harder to find food at the foraging distances increase. Before then in autumn in England, it was Ivy that came into bloom in September and then the distances at which the bees collect the food drops again.

Speaker 2: Can I actually quickly look up and have us describe the observation hives and the waggle dances and what they look like and the yeah okay because I kind of feel like before we start launching into how we interpret what we find we should probably describe a little bit what it looks like.

Speaker 1: Oh that makes perfect sense I think for a lot of us I think I have a picture but I thought a lot of listeners are still waggle dance yeah because walk us through.

Speaker 2: So like I said we do our work with glass-walled observation hives and these hives are their queen rights so from the bee's perspective they're a normal hive they're a little smaller than what a regular beehive and an apiary would be but you know they have nurses and they have foragers and they have brood at different stages and then hopefully a queen.

Speaker 1: Wait a second just one second here so bees behind glass that you can look in and they behave normally?

Speaker 2: They behave normally they can adjust quickly to diffuse overhead light you don't want a very bright single light source because the bees use that with netmesses with how they orient their dances but if you have got a diffuse light setting and if they have access to the outside you can even test that yourself putting them in the dark under red light which they can't see but we can and so we can compare you know what kind of behaviors you see in the dark versus in a lab setting with an overhead light one that's not too bright and it's not actually very different so we're confident that what we see are these are natural behaviors. Okay so we have these observation hives and there we have three of them and they're set up inside of a lab and we're interested in the forging dynamics across the whole season so this is kind of early March to late October and we film each hive for one hour per day on days when the foragers are actively flying so no rain you know and warm enough that they're able to get going in the early spring. Now when a forager has found a good source of nectar pollen she comes back and she performs a waggle dance this recruitment communication that we've been talking about now in the waggle dance the bee advances in one direction while waggling her abdomen very quickly from side to side and then this is called the waggle run she usually stops circles back to the start and oftentimes will do another waggle run if you can repeat this circuit of waggle run in return variable number of times it can be from one to over a hundred times. Really?

Speaker 1: Yeah so it can go for quite a period of time and we're most interested in the portion where she's waggling her body so not the return but the waggle run because it's in the waggle run that the bee is communicating the two bits of information we want to extract and those two bits are distance and direct. Yeah, now distance she communicates with the duration of the waggle run so the longer she waggles in seconds the further she'll go. One second of dance is about 750 meters so if you see a bee and she's waggling yeah and then if you dance this for two seconds it's 750 times two approximately that's how she communicates how far. Okay, she communicates her direction by the angle that she makes on the comb so the comb is vertical. Let's say you see a bee who's waggling her abdomen while her head faces straight to the right and is then making a 90-degree angle from the straight up with her body so then what that means is the source is at 90 degrees from where the sun is right at that time.

Speaker 1: Wow so you're by taking those two measurements you can pinpoint those flowers 750 meters at 90 degrees from the sun.

Speaker 2: Well pinpoint is a strong word because the honey bee is actually neither very precise nor very accurate as a communicator so in terms of precision within the dance because she repeats the waggle run multiple times one way that we handle kind of imprecision is that we decode multiple waggles runs per dance and then we take an average because averaging is a kind of a good way to reduce noise.

Speaker 3: But there remains imprecision regardless of whether we take the average or not so if we put out sugar syrup feeders in a controlled experiment and we train bees to comb and collect food from there these sugar syrup feeders have maybe a diameter of 10 centimeters something along that line and the dances that the bees perform for these syrup feeders will kind of be off 150 meters in either cardinal direction so they can say it's too far away or too close and so on so it's a very imprecise dance but that's maybe not too surprising if you consider let's say you go out and take out lunch and bring that back to your office and it looks really

Speaker 1: delicious and your colleagues in the office want to know where you got that from and you have to pinpoint the location I think you could be pretty happy if you would get within 150 meters of something that's maybe a mile out oh yeah you'd get close you'd see the sign and then you'd know you're you don't need to know

Speaker 3: where the counter is the bees do the same with using sense and pheromones to home in on on the food source then but as a general rule you could say oh the food is over there one and a half miles in that direction and you would get pretty close and that's what the bees do

Speaker 2: I think the fact that they can still that they still have this communication is fascinating because you know recruitment is not foolproof if the bee is doing a dance you know sometimes only one in four of the followers will actually find it so when we started to do this this work because they're imprecise and because they're inaccurate we wanted to actually account a little bit for this variability because all kind of previous studies and the legacy of Carl von Frisch you would see a decoded dance as a pinpoint as an x marks the spot we don't really over-represented our certain certainty of where the resource would be right okay so this was actually Michael this is actually Roj's contribution I'm going to hand it over to him on all the talks

Speaker 3: I wanted to you know if you then imagine let's say we take the the image again of us getting takeout food and you tell someone oh I've got it from that mall over there you wouldn't be exactly certain whether it would be this specific shop or the neighboring shop it's not your method of communication is not accurate to kind of resolve which one it was and what people have been doing is they've just kind of said what we observe in the the mean value of the direction is where the bee has gone and if you have many many dances this shouldn't make too much of a difference because you will get some dances that land on the right spot and hopefully the majority will eventually and you can overwhelm that uncertainty by having enough data but the further out the bees go the less precise the communication gets and also the thinner the foraging is so your data gets less and so you are just not certain whether the bee has been foraging on the field margin or the canola field and instead of saying we pretend that we are certain we will just account for this uncertainty by plotting let's say a thousand simulated dances for each of the observed dances.

Speaker 1: Oh that's great so if I understand right you're taking the dances back you're doing some kind of simulation based on you know the observed dances and that gives you rather than I remember one of the things I was most I was really intrigued with I remember reading the wisdom of the hive by Tom Sealy and he has these little maps and there are these little dots and he's like oh great I know exactly where they're going but this allows you to sort of take in this inherent this you know finding the restaurant in the shopping strip but we it allows you to take that behavior and now render it more useful and more the uncertainties up front you know what we're dealing with.

Exactly. Fantastic okay great so let's take a break and we'll come back and talk a little bit about how this really remarkable system could be used to answer these questions about habitat restoration. Sounds great. All right well we're back and you know during the break we were talking a little bit about some of the resources at Virginia Tech and we're going to link talking about if you're interested in the waggle dance and want to kind of like understand the process that right and something we described is like real visual tell us a little bit about what we would see on the link.

Speaker 2: One of the links is a video that we made for an outreach event that the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology puts on in October called Hokey Bug Fest. What's it called? Hokey Bug Fest so the Hokey is the Hokey Bird is our mascot here at Virginia Tech. Okay. The Hokey Bug Fest is our outreach event but last year I think we had 8,000 people probably 7,000 of the children.

Speaker 1: Really? It's amazing.

Speaker 2: It's a lot of people. So we had a whole room that we called Pollination Station and we wanted to have a section devoted to the waggle dance and so because there's not enough of us to be in all quarters of the Pollination Station we created a little video that walks people through what the waggle dance is, what does it look like, it draws the angles for you, it kind of measures the duration for you and hopefully can give the visual backing that someone would need to be able to understand what it is we talk about when we say that we can get the distance and the direction from this behavior.

So that's one of the links and then we also linked to a video appstress that we created for a paper that came out where we used this method of decoding waggle dances to survey the rural countryside and in it we made just a little four-minute video talking about the background, the question of how good is the rural countryside for the families and then again we'll show a little bit about how we dance decoded, we'll show observation hives and then I'll also show some of these heat maps that Roget was describing earlier and then lastly one of the papers is in an open access journal plus one and so hopefully all your listeners would be able to look and see heat maps that describe the foraging effort kind of in the spring next to the summer next to the autumn and what you can see with that is foraging distance is very short in the spring and then it's a lot longer in the summer and then contracts again in the autumn so what that says to us is that for our bees in the location there in southern England high summer was the hard time for them to hide suit because they're flying the furthest to bring back forage that's not necessarily a better quality.

Speaker 1: I wanted to just ask a quick question. This is going to be a, so those will all be linked on the show notes so everybody can see them. I really encourage you the video, the video abstract is really clear. It's got great pictures.

Everything is really great. Okay, so we've talked a little bit about the methodology, but tell us a little bit about how you apply it. How, coming back to this starting question, can we evaluate, evaluate things, real, real restoration using these methods? Well, I guess the one thing we've talked about already is using just distance

Speaker 3: as kind of a proxy how hard it is. So if you put an observation height in a landscape and you observe the duration of these dances that translate into the distance, you will be able to say whether it's hard for the bees at that time. And that's the plus one paper that is linked. And that's kind of the first step. And then in terms of spatial information, I don't know whether you will take this.

Speaker 2: Right, so when we had these dances decoded, we ended up with 5,484 dances. Rosé talked a little bit about what are some of the temporal dynamics. So looking just at the distance that the bees fly, we're able to ask some questions about, when is it hard for the bees to collect forage. When is it easier for the bees to collect forage?

Looking at just how far they fly. But in terms of the spatial information, this is when we get to bringing cool GIS. So we can take all these waggle dances, so these over 5,000 dances, and plot them in the way that Rosé has described, rasterize them so we plot them simultaneously. And then we put them, overlay them on a map of where we were doing the study. So in England, this was in Brighton, at the University of Sussex.

It's about 50 or 60 miles south of London. And then you're able to start asking some qualitative and quantitative questions about where they're going. But one of the things that we found is that the most visited spot in the whole landscape, and we got data from almost 100 kilometers squared, the most visited spot was this national nature reserve that was located two kilometers from where the lab was. It was the only national nature reserve in the foraging range of where we were. And one thing that's really cool about it is this nature reserve had been specifically managed for three decades to be good for butterflies. So as a consequence, it had really a profusion, an abundance of wildflowers during the summer, which we knew already from looking at the distance data was the time of year when the bees were finding it harder to find forage. So at a time of year when they struggled to feed themselves, they were really going to this one particular spot. And so I think to go back to your very first question, what is there any benefit of creating small areas?

I think that that shows that, yes, if you have a small area that has these flowers, the bees will travel a far distance to be able to visit it. So that was one thing that we found. Another thing that we found is we were able to download land-type data from the UK equivalent of the USGS. And the land types were already set and they had urban and they had rural and then rural could be subdivided into rural lands under environmental stewardship and rural lands not under environmental stewardship. And then there were different levels of environmental stewardship. And we found that there was a significant result. The honeybees consistently and significantly preferred to forage over the land types that are rural lands under the highest level of environmental stewardship.

Oh, wow. So in a lot of ways, that study and the foraging were just a sort of proof of concept, we set out because we thought that the honeybee would be a good bioindicator able to give us escape-level information about when a good time and a hard time to collect forage and where is it a good place or a not good place to collect forage. And we felt we were able to answer both of those questions by taking these decoded dances, mapping them in this new way that Raje had come up with, and then analyzing them across space and time.

Speaker 1: Well, now it's exciting cause you're now at Virginia Tech. There's a new program at Virginia Tech and I'm really curious to hear about what your plans are for the program.

Speaker 2: Broadly speaking, my lab here at Virginia Tech is going to be scaling up the work that we did in England and knew an exciting way. So as you said, it's a hot topic, lack of forage continues to be one of the challenges that's facing really a lot of our wildlife and supplementing the diet of honeybees either by giving them food or creating habitat or restoration of prairies. This is still largely a process that goes on very indiscriminately, probably because the current methods of serving and cataloging floral abundance, they're very hard to do.

And so, we just increase the available flowers. But what I think is that the honeybee can help us actually pinpoint the times and maybe the places where help would be most needed. So this was one of my main goals when setting up my program at Virginia Tech. And another goal of mine is oftentimes I feel like there's this bee wars where people study things either in the honeybee or in the native bee and my bee is better than your bee.

But I wondered if perhaps by creating this dichotomy it means that any recommendations that come from one are gonna be limited in their usefulness. And so what I'm hoping is that we can actually make some headway with that issue. So my lab's future work will be in three phases. And then the first phase will be setting up observation hives in three locations across the state of Virginia.

These locations are all categorically different in terms of the land types or the features that are found in them. And for two years, we're going to be filming and then dance decoding. So collecting, again, honeybee forging data that we get from waggle dance decoding. And then in the next phase of the project, I wanna look at common trends. So are we able to show in our analysis that the times and the places that are hard or easy that there's some commonality across these three locations? And then in the third phase, I want to experimentally address this api versus non-APIS issue, the information that the honeybees have given us about spatial and temporal challenges in good areas and experimentally test them with abundance and diversity and survival of native bees and bumblebees. And the hypothesis would be the hot spots that the honeybees have indicated are good or the cold spots that the honeybees have indicated are bad will map very nicely with areas that either support abundant and diverse native bee communities and bumblebee colonies can thrive or be places and times where it's hard for them. So hopefully in the end, this will be kind of a five-year project. Hopefully, at the end of the project, we will have made some progress in developing bees as bioindicators and also kind of closing the gap a little bit between this APIS, and non-APIS issue. And then also just looking at what are the forging dynamics of honeybees in this part of the world?

Speaker 1: Man, those are some of the key questions everybody has. That's awesome. I'm really glad you're tackling them.

Speaker 3: Yeah, I guess as for me, I'm a collaborator on this work still and my role in it will be to kind of oversee the development of the new methods that will need to tackle these questions because in England, we had one site and we had a somewhat crude spatial analysis of these data that we collected there, but now we'll have multiple sites. So we need to kind of account for the variation across sites, but also we want to work out the common things that occur in these landscapes. So we need to have the appropriate statistical methods to do that and that will be my thing.

And I think there is still room to improve the methods in general and I want to look into that. So for example, right now, people put hives basically in one location just because it's logistically, I guess, the easiest thing to do. But because the bees radiate out from this one spot, the resolution of the areas that are good, that we can map, decreases with increasing distance from the hives. So are there spatial arrangements to put the hives in that would help us make better maps? So how far would hives be a part of increasing the resolution if it's possible at all?

Speaker 2: If you triangulate, for example, instead of putting three hives in one central area, if you take the three hives and try to perhaps end up with a better spatial resolution of what's going on.

Speaker 3: And of course, that will depend again on the imprecision of the vans and scaling with distance and so on. So this will be one line of research that I'll be on in the future. And then we hope that we can kind of just steadily improve these methods.

Speaker 1: I know there are lots of people around the US, around the world who are looking at these methods. And in any effort to make it easier for the rest of us, it would be awesome.

Speaker 2: We're lucky enough that we're able to actually help consult on some of these projects that are located in other places. So it's exciting to think that we'll be able to hear about data firsthand from other locations and what are the honeybees doing in other places.

One last thing. So this wouldn't be a main focus of my lab, but we both continue to have this strong interest in basic science questions around waggle dance miscommunication. So again, why are they so impressed? What are the causes and consequences of their imprecision and their inaccuracy?

Speaker 1: Well, you guys got a lot of work to do.

Speaker 2: It's true. It's true. It's true.

Speaker 1: Let's take a break. I want to come back just like I have some quick questions to ask you about books and tools and favorite pollinators. Yeah, that sounds great. OK, so we ask all our guests these same three questions. The first question we have is, is there a book that you really find inspiring? Do you want everybody to know about it?

Speaker 2: Yes. So in terms of inspiration, it's actually a paper on the Ains and Methods of Ethology by Nico Tenbergen, one of the fathers of modern ethology. So he shared the Nobel Prize with Carl von Fries and Lorenz in 1973. In this paper, he says that you know, if you ask the question, why does an animal behave as it does, you can approach it in four different ways. Is it like the four pillars of investigation from Tenbergen? And, you know, his approach is kind of, well, you could say, how does it work? This is kind of a physiology type of investigation. Or you could say, how did that behavior develop, which is kind of an ontogeny way of looking at things?

Or what is it for, which is teleology or how did it evolve, which is phylogeny? And I think it's very easy in our science as we get more and more focused, more narrow in our outlook that we just use kind of one pillar of the Tenbergen investigation. But what he says is that it's very satisfying if you can bring in more than one when you look at things. And I read that paper as an unhappy neuroscience graduate student. Actually, I started as a neuroscientist. And right around the time I discovered Honeybees, I was reading the books and the papers of Tenbergen. And I found that a very comprehensive and satisfying way to approach scientific inquiry. And ultimately, it led to my leaving neuroscience and going to behavioral ecology. So hey, I guess it all worked out.

Speaker 1: That is an awesome recommendation. Did of the people who won the Nobel Prize, who's the third one? Conrad Lawrence. Lawrence, yeah. So did they all know each other? Carl von Fischer, they just kind of like lumped together. You're all getting the prize.

Speaker 3: I mean, Lawrence and from Frisch, I guess, were also, I guess, pretty close. Going to Coordina, Austria, Bavaria. So I'm pretty sure they would have known me.

Speaker 2: I mean, they were doing their work at kind of different times. So, you know, von Frisch was publishing about the Waggwe bands in the 40s. And so they shared the Nobel Prize in 1973. So there's a bit of a temporal component, but they're sure there must have been some communication about things.

Speaker 1: Well, that's great. And I like it. So I like the sounds like when you were doing neuroscience, you were focused on one of the pillars, and the paper sort of inspired you to get some more pillars.

Speaker 2: Yes, it came at a very crucial time. I needed the support to try something new. How about you?

Speaker 3: For me, it really was the origins of virtue by Matt Ridley. I don't know if you heard of it. The origins of one more time. The origins of virtue. Oh, no, I don't know. Which traces basically the work of Hamel and this cohort that looked at why animals cooperate.

Really? I read it as an undergrad and it was largely responsible for getting me into the field that I am in now, which is besides the honeybee bagel bands, which is this remarkable communication signal that allows for this large-scale cooperation in this complex society of the honeybees. So my first love is really the evolution of cooperation. Why do animals cooperate? Why do some individuals for adoption and instead help others raise their offspring?

Speaker 1: So this is this is a kind of like looking at all of that work that led up to it and kind of a summation of it. Exactly.

Speaker 3: It's a popular science book. And I think it must have come out around the time I was doing my undergrad. And I read it in the German translation, which is the Biorchite trubens. Yeah, so that came out around when I was starting my undergrad studies in Bird and that was 1998. So, you know, I like I'm pretty sure it still reads pretty well. And yeah, that really got me into the field that I'm in now.

Speaker 1: A fantastic. Those are two excellent recommendations. I'm really excited about those. How about tools? Is there a tool when you're doing your kind of work that you are if you were on a desert island, you would just have all sorts of answers? People have said like are.

Speaker 3: It's getting a little nerdy now. Just are. I'm not sure how much your audience will be familiar with this, but there is an editor that has been around for a very long time. I think it was first developed in the 70s on timeshare machines. And so it's Max. And this is by the GNU project. So it's open source. It's freely available.

You can download it. And this Emax has extensions called modes. One of the extensions is port mode. And another extension is Emax speaks statistics. So I use org-mode and Emax to speak statistics, connect to R, and write reproducible documents. And I don't know whether you're familiar with R studio. Yeah.

Where you can have markdown documents that have our code integrated. So it's a little similar, but in my view, superior. I just really like to work in there. And so that would have to be with me on a desert island.

Speaker 1: Your Emax and your little generator.

Speaker 3: It's hard to do the stats with it, basically. So R is a great, great package because it's a software tool that has a very wide user base and you can find it.

Someone who has done what you want to do before and just do it. And yeah, it's for me to go to Tool to even do kind of these TIS-type analyses. So I don't use our TIS.

Speaker 1: Well, and it does underscore the kind of work that you do. There is this part that's kind of sitting in front of an observation hive and getting your protractor out. But then I guess to be able to do more, to be able to create these maps, you really do it's there's a lot of statistics underlying it. And this is where people have to take the plunge. Exactly. How about you?

Speaker 2: Well, you kind of already answered it because I was actually going to say observation hives going to go back to biology. Because, you know, we couldn't do what we do without the observation hive, without this window into what the inner workings alive are. And I had been doing my postdoc for several years, you know, looking at doing waggle dance decoding before I had the opportunity to train honeybees to forage at a feeder. So I had a known location to see actually the waggle dance in action in that way, to see how the angle changes through the course of the day. Asian stays the same because the bees always indicate relative to where the sun is. And that just blew my mind. So I would have to take my observation.

Speaker 3: Well, we can continue doing our work.

Speaker 1: If you both are there, your collaboration is solid. So what makes a good observation hive? Is there any kind of custom things that you, you know, would you would insist on when making one of these things?

Speaker 2: Well, I feel that if someone looked at my observation hive, they would probably think it's duct tape. But actually, that goes counter to what makes a good observation. So you want to be able to see very well, which means that periodically you need to be able to clean the glass. OK, we've kind experimenting with different designs of observation hives since we started Virginia Tech. And one of the things right now that we have instead of one large pane of glass covering the three vertical frames, we have three pains. And so each one individually can be removed and hopefully cleaned.

Speaker 3: We also have been experimenting with acrylic glass lately, which makes the hive so much lighter to lift. So if you have to do maintenance, you can more easily lift them off the tables and you can use them around easier in the lab. But there is the issue of cleaning the glass, which you can't scrape off else you'll have scratches. Right. Yeah. And so.

Speaker 2: Whereas I can scrape to no end.

Speaker 3: Yeah, so that's probably not the final solution for observation hives there. I don't know.

Speaker 2: But I guess in the end, what you want is to be able to see well. But periodically, you have to do beekeeping. You have to do maintenance on the hive. Seem to be able to access the bees that are on the inside. OK. And then hopefully you have a marked queen so you can very easily make sure she's in there doing. Thank you.

Speaker 3: Then the essential thing is really that you keep the bee space right inside the observation hive because if you don't do that, you get double layers of bees. You don't the dancers because the dancers will prefer to dance on the comb. So if bees start clinging to the glass, they will cover up the dance for right, right.

Speaker 2: Or the bees will start building burr comb. And so then you can't see anyway what's going on. So the bee space, as Rich, I said, is sort of something really you need to maintain.

Speaker 1: OK, fantastic. So I suspect you might say your favorite pollinators, are honeybees, which but you've worked with bumblebees before as well.

Speaker 2: I did. And actually, you're right. So my heart always belongs. But I did try to think, OK, I have to pick a second to run around. In addition to bumblebees, in my Ph.D., I was able to work with stingless bees, which are really so full of species-rich lineage for you. Social. They're closely related to honeybees. They have perennial colonies, and really like beautiful internal structures. And so one of the really prettiest species that I worked with was called Frisimolita varia. It's the common name of Marmelada.

It was in Brazil. One of the sort of neat natural history features that Marmelada does is that it coats whatever nesting box you put it in will coat the whole box with this fragrant, thick resin that they collect from plants. And they're able to synthesize. It smells amazing, especially the warm Brazilian sun. The bee itself is small, but it's very colorful and it has some cool guarding behaviors, which is what I was looking at at the time in my PhD.

Speaker 1: Oh, type type the if you can send me the species name and I will make sure people get to see it. OK. So, Roger, are you honeybees also at the top of your list or do you have a

Speaker 3: Well, I do like to work with the honeybee. It's I guess we can build on millennia of experience of working in peace. And that makes it a really good organism to work in our official settings. And, you know, if you have ever seen the sticks, it's tongue into the syrup at our feeders. That's just it's.

But in the wild, I actually like this would be close. It's a sweat bee that has pretty golden legs and that has a remarkable social system. So they are plastic in their social system. When the climate is a little warmer in the south, for example, they are social, you have the founders that go out in spring. She overminters, she comes out in spring emerges, and starts building an S digital provision for a first route that is heavily female bias and will consist mainly of workers. Then these workers assist the founders in provisioning for a second route. The second route will then be kind of 50-50 males and females. And they will be the reproductive sense that the female and the male make and the male-style female overwinters to become founders of the next year. But as you go up in latitude, the social system changes to solitary because during the provisioning season, the season has to be short, collect the pollen is short.

And so they directly will produce the guidance. The interesting bit is if you move nests from the north to the south, they will become social and vice versa. If you move them from the south to the north, they will become solitary. So they are flexible in their social system. And I think that makes them pretty unique and fun to study. But there are drawbacks. They are very hard to keep in the lab. Experienced myself. And so, yeah, I think to work in the lab or artificial settings, I prefer that.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I suppose that we also forget we have an episode with Dr. Hollis Woodard and she, you know, talking about the evolution of social behavior. And we forget being an apis that, you know, that got fixed a long time ago. And it's very, you know, it's developed over a long period.

But we have these other species that have this plasticity. And I'm APIs focused. I started as a honeybee person. So I often have to really reset my brain when I'm thinking about all the other species.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I understand. I feel like I'm trying to do that myself too these days.

Speaker 1: Well, thank you guys for being generous through your time. It was really exciting catching up with you. And I'm really looking forward to touching base again in the future. See how things are going. Thank you for having us. Thanks very much.

We enjoyed it. Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at We'd also love to hear from you and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that can be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.

It makes us more visible, which helps others discover pollination. See you next week.

PolliNation was joined this week by Drs. Margaret Couvillon and Roger Schürch from Virginia Tech. As you will learn in this episode, the Couvillon Lab investigates the dynamics of how pollinators collect their food in the landscape, with a specific focus on honey bee foraging, recruitment, and health. Dr. Couvillon is in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech. Dr. Schürch is a Research Assistant Professor studying the Behavior, Ecology and Evolution of Insects. Over the last few years he has become increasingly interested in the honey bee waggle dance both as a tool for foraging ecologists, as well as from a basic science perspective. Today they talk about their collaborative work on using honey bee dance behavior as a way to assess habitat quality for bees.

Listen to today’s episode to find out what we can learn from bee dances, and how home gardeners can make a difference creating their own pollinator habitat.

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“Let’s say you want to assess a large area for bee forage availability. If you are a traditional ecologist, you would walk transects and catalog the flowers you see, collect nectar and pollen samples to determine how much each flower is producing, and you have to account for competition. […] Even if you could do all that we calculated that it would take over 1,600 days to cover 90 km2. This is why we turned to the honey bee. The honey bee can do a lot of this hard work for us.” – Dr. Margaret Couvillon

Show Notes:

  • How to measure the efficacy of small pollinator habitats
  • Why the size of the habitat may not as big of a factor in pollinator population growth
  • Why a bee’s dance can point to their pollen sources
  • How researchers are able to use the bee’s dance to extrapolate useful data
  • How a bee’s dance moves dictate distance and direction of food
  • What we can learn from the inaccuracy of a bee’s dance
  • How Margaret and Roger are using this research to develop habitat restoration for pollinators
  • What one can answer with this research
  • What our guests will be focusing on in their upcoming research
  • The techniques Margaret and Roger use to create the most useable data in researching bee dances
  • What can be learned from studying the miscommunication of the bee dances

“If you put an observation hive in a landscape and observe the duration of the honey bee dances, which translate into foraging distance, you will be able to say [whether a habitat is good or bad for the bees] at a given time.” – Dr. Roger Schürch

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