Honey bees' foraging preferences can provide valuable information for governments about how to better manage rural landscapes, according to new research.
In the past two decades, the European Union has spent 41 billion euros (£33.4 billion) on agri-environment schemes (AES), which aim to improve the rural landscape by bringing in changes such as the creation of areas for wildlife around crop fields.
There are different levels of AES, although few studies exist evaluating how wildlife responds to the schemes, researchers at the University of Sussex have said.
But a study published in the journal Current Biology has revealed that a honey bee's waggle dance, in which it waggles its abdomen while moving in a figure-of-eight pattern to tell its nest mates where to find good sources of pollen and nectar, identifies the better areas as being in rural lands under a higher level AES rather than any other land type, including urban areas and rural lands not under AES.
Researchers at Sussex's Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (Lasi) spent two years filming waggle dances made by worker honey bees living in glass-fronted observation hives.
They then decoded the dances to discover where bees were gathering their food.
By combining the waggle dance data with maps of land use, the researchers could make a landscape-wide survey of the surrounding 94sq km (36sq miles) because honey bees forage at long distances from their hives.
The bees were able to access the surrounding city and countryside through tubes in the lab wall that opened to the outside.
The landscape was divided into one of seven land types – urban, rural, and five types of rural under government-funded AESs, a university spokeswoman said.
The study showed that the most plentiful areas for foraging were rural lands in higher AESs.
Lead researcher Dr Margaret Couvillon said: "Usually efforts to help wildlife takes two approaches.
"One is to set aside important areas like National Parks or National Nature Reserves.
"Another approach is to make existing areas more wildlife-friendly, like the agri-environment schemes. Here we have let the bees tell us which practices and what areas are good for them.
"The honey bee is acting as an 'indicator' species pointing to 'healthy landscapes'. The honey bee is a generalist forager, so landscapes used by honey bees are good for a wide range of pollinators.
"The waggle dance is, therefore, more than just behaviour. It is a powerful tool for ecology and conservation."