The chemotaxis network that governs the motion of Escherichia coli has long been studied to gain a general understanding of signal transduction. Although this pathway is composed of just a few components, it exhibits some essential characteristics of biological complexity, such as adaptation and response to environmental signals. In studying intracellular networks, most experiments and mathematical models have assumed that network properties can be inferred from population measurements. However, this approach masks underlying temporal fluctuations of intracellular signalling events. We have inferred fundamental properties of the chemotaxis network from a noise analysis of behavioural variations in individual bacteria. Here we show that certain properties established by population measurements, such as adapted states, are not conserved at the single-cell level: for timescales ranging from seconds to several minutes, the behaviour of non-stimulated cells exhibit temporal variations much larger than the expected statistical fluctuations. We find that the signalling network itself causes this noise and identify the molecular events that produce it. Small changes in the concentration of one key network component suppress temporal behavioural variability, suggesting that such variability is a selected property of this adaptive system.