Dr Matthew Hasenjager, Department of Biological Sciences, has recently published research on bee communication in their hives, specifically focusing on their 'waggle dance.' We recently caught up with Matthew to find out more about bees' communication techniques, and to ask what we can do to help our bee population thrive.
1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and your role in the Department of Biological Sciences?
I joined the department in 2017 as a postdoc in Elli Leadbeater’s research group to study how honeybees communicate with one another. Honeybee foragers are constantly sharing information, not only through waggle dances, but also through chemical communication, exchanging food, and by returning to the hive smelling like the flowers they visited. The overarching goal of the project is to better understand the circumstances under which bees are most reliant on dances, given all this other information they can also use to find food. In this way, we may be able to piece together the ancestral conditions that favoured the evolution of this unique form of communication.
2. Your recent research on bee communication has been warmly received, is the 'waggle dance' unique to bees?
What makes the dance unique is that it allows bees to communicate the spatial coordinates of resources they have visited (such as a flower patch) to other workers, who are then able to find that location themselves. Although social insects—which include not just honeybees, but also bumblebees, stingless bees, termites, ants, and some wasps—have numerous methods of communication, waggle dances are only found in the four honeybee species: the western honeybee and three species endemic to southeast Asia.
3. Sadly, the bee population appears to be in decline, is there anything we can be doing to help our bees thrive?
Habitat loss is an important factor contributing to the decline of bees and other important pollinators. For example, current agricultural practices can lead to boom-bust cycles, where pollinators have abundant food while a crop is in season, but nothing to feed on after that. By planting a variety of native plant species, we can promote healthy pollinator populations.
4. What are some of your other research interests?
I am interested in social behaviour in general, such as how animals establish their social networks, and the costs and benefits to individuals of being socially connected. Prior to working with honeybees, I did my PhD on guppies, exploring how their social networks were shaped by the combination of qualities possessed by group members, or by whether individuals perceived their environment as potentially dangerous.
5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway, and within the department of Biological Sciences?
Royal Holloway has been a wonderful place to work. One of the things I’ve valued most is how open and supportive the department is. People are genuinely eager to exchange ideas, collaborate, provide advice and feedback, and support your growth as an academic.
6. How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I always have a book close to hand, usually science fiction or fantasy. Current favourites include N. K. Jemisin and Steven Erikson. I also like to get out in nature whenever I can.