Weeds, Flowers, Bees, and the Signaling In-Between

Signaling’s responsible for a lot more than we think.

Consider the following quote by Rory Sutherland in Alchemy:

When signalling their enthusiasm for a potential nesting site, bees waggle about in an exponential relationship to its quality; the amount of energy they expend in the signalling of a potential nest site is proportional to their enthusiasm for it. But they also make use of expensive ‘advertising’, in order to decide where to devote their time and attention.

The advertisements which bees find useful are flowers – and if you think about it, a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.

Flowers spend a great deal of their resources convincing customers that they are worth visiting. Their target audience is bees, or other insects, birds or animals that may help to pollinate the flower – a process that dates back at least to the time of the dinosaurs. For the pollination process to be effective, the flower needs to convince the customers of its worth. To borrow the language of the Michelin Guide, a flower can be ‘vaut l’étape’, ‘vaut le détour’ or ‘vaut le voyage’; ‘worth stopping at’, ‘worth going out of your way for’ or ‘a destination in itself’. To do this, the flower places a costly bet, offering a generous source of nectar that rewards bees for their visit, and encourages them to stay at the flower for long enough to collect pollen on their bodies for dispersal elsewhere. But this nectar is kept out of sight – how can the flower, at a distance, convince the bee of the existence of a reward which it cannot verify until it has already exerted time and effort?

The answer is that they use ‘advertising and branding’ – they produce distinctive, hard-to-copy scents and large, brightly coloured petals. These are noticeable, but producing them is risky, as they may attract the attention of herbivores that might eat them. The distinctive scent and petals act as a reliable (though not infallible) proxy for the presence of nectar, which a bee can use to help decide whether the visit is worth it or not.

A plant which has sufficient resources to produce petals and scent is clearly healthy enough to produce nectar, but using its resources for distinctive display will only really pay off if bees visit more than once, or if they encourage other bees to join them – there is no point in advertising heavily up front if you only make one sale. When you come here, the display says, I’m betting that you’re going to come back, or all my effort will have been wasted.

The system of information-sharing between the two species is also reliable – there is often a correlation between the size of petals and the supply of nectar. This saves a lot of wasted visits, because it means that a bee can tell from some distance away whether a plant is ‘a destination in itself’. It also requires that the plant use their resources on being distinctive as well as noticeable. If any type of flower is a better source of nectar, this generosity will only be rewarded with ‘customer loyalty’ if bees can learn to recognise it and so choose to make repeat visits. If all flowers looked and smelled alike, any incentive they offered to the bee – more nectar, perhaps – would be ineffective, because the bee might not be able to distinguish between that kind of flower and other less rewarding plants. It is only by having a recognisable identity that a flower is able to improve the value exchange and increase the chance of repeat visits.

Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (pp. 190-192). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

We often think of signaling as a negative aspect of human behavior. We don’t need to think this way. As Sutherland points out, signaling is responsible for thousands of years of reproduction in nature.

Remember, a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.