Honey bees are truly fascinating creatures. Even though we do not often think about them, once you start thinking about their behavior, new areas to explore just keep on popping up. Today, we’ll explore the ways bees communicate with each other, focusing on a specific, and probably the most famous case: the waggle dance.
What is a waggle dance? The waggle dance is a specific series of movements that foraging bees use in order to relay information about food sources to each other. When a worker bee returns to the hive from a successful foraging trip, she performs the dance, thus recruiting her sister bees to go to the same place. By performing the waggle dance, bees can transmit information about the distance, direction, and the abundance of a food source.
Sounds fascinating, right? However, even when we know what waggle dance is, it’s hard to imagine how it works. In order to explain the details, we’ll need to consider briefly the anatomy of the bee and its way of “thinking”. So let’s dive in!
The Waggle Dance Explained
When the Nobel-winning ethologist Karl von Frisch first discovered the waggle dance in the 1940s and even he was surprised. How can such a small bug perform such a complicated action? Ever since then, waggle dance behavior has been studied a lot by scientists interested in animal behavior, simply because it is one of the most complex communicative rituals among insects. All social insects (like ants, for example), need a good communication system in order to survive, but honey bees seem to be the absolute winners in terms of complexity and accuracy of their communication.
How Do Bees Communicate With Each Other?
As we have already mentioned, honey bees are social insects. As there are thousands of bees living together in a hive, it makes sense that they need to be able to communicate with each other quite well. How could they organize themselves so well without communicating? But how exactly do honey bees communicate?
Communication entails an exchange of messages. Any organism that participates in communication needs to be able to perceive messages via its sense organs, and it also needs to be able to send some kind of message. Humans have five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Honey bees also technically have all of these senses. However, their perception organs are different and they use them in a rather different way.
For example, bees do not have ears, but they can feel sound vibrations with their legs and antennae. Honey bees don’t have noses either, but they do have a remarkable sense of smell. In fact, communication using chemical signals (pheromones), which are technically smells, is one of the most important parts of the bee communication system (related article here). A bee’s eye also differs from the human eye in many ways, and it can be said that bees see more than we do, in a sense, because they have the ability to see ultraviolet light, and also have special sensors that allow them to sense polarized light patterns (see our article here for more information on color vision).
But how does the “audience” understand the dance of a bee returning from a foraging trip? We might expect that bees read the dance by watching the dancing bee – but the matter is, it’s actually quite dark inside the hive where the bee dances. There is a logical explanation though – the waggle dance seems to be a multisensory experience for the bees. In fact, the bees inside the hive often touch the dancing bee with their antennae, and they feel the vibrations of the dance. Even smell might play a part, but none of these cues are sufficient by themselves. It seems, finally, that bees actually use all of their senses to understand the waggle dance.
Orientation: How do Bees Find Their Way?
According to Elizabeth Evans and Carol Butler, who wrote a very interesting book called Why Do Bees Buzz, “bees translate their flight through the landscape into a flight plan for the bees in the hive”.
From this, follows that honey bees must have some kind of understanding of their location in the environment and the direction in which they are flying. It has been discovered that bees not only remember the location of their hive, but they can also remember and recognize various landmarks in the landscape surrounding the hive which they use to orient themselves.
Now, we as humans, might take this kind of knowledge for granted. After all, we might travel from home to work and the other way around almost without thinking about it. However, this kind of action actually takes a considerable amount of mental activity. In fact, it has been shown that bees have a special type of spatial memory that allows them to remember certain details in their surroundings and use them as landmarks for orientation. Besides this, bees also use the location of the sun to find their way and remember the locations of specific food sources. This mechanism is time sensitive, but still very important. For example, bees can fly south in the morning by keeping the sun to the left. In fact, bees always determine the direction of flight relative to the sun, which is important for the waggle dance, as we’ll see later. Even when the sun is not visible, bees can actually tell where it is based on patterns of polarized light that they sense with special light sensors called ommatidia.
Waggle Dance Performance
To explain the waggle dance, we might want to start with the stage where it is performed. After a successful trip, foraging bees enter the hive and go to the area where the brood comb is located. The brood comb serves as the dance platform, and this is where idle foraging bees are waiting to receive information about food sources. One important thing to remember is that in hives of European honey bees, the combs hang vertically, so the dance is actually performed on a vertical plane. It is here that the dancing bee starts performing the dance basically moving in a figure eight pattern, and this movement is repeated multiple times.
The Waggle Dance: Communicating Distance and Direction
The “figure eight” movement of the bee performing the waggle dance basically consists of two phases:
- “Waggle” in which the bee moves in a certain direction while waggling its abdomen
- “Return” in which it circles back to the starting point, only to start all over again.
As we have already mentioned, bees can determine the direction they are flying in relative to the position of the sun. This is the first message that the waggle dance sends to the bees watching. In simple terms, the direction up will mean towards the sun. So, if a bee waggles while moving straight upwards on the comb, this means – go straight towards the sun (more specifically, the point on the horizon below the sun). If, on the other hand, the bee waggles diagonally, for example 45 degrees right from the “up” direction, this means the food source is located to the right.
Once the direction is established, there are two more things that the waggle dance tells the other bees – the distance and the quality of the food source. The longer the waggle phase of the dance – the further the source. If a bee is more excited about the source, it will waggle more vigorously, indicating that the food source is abundant and of high quality.
Do honey bees perform other types of dance besides the waggle dance?
Yes, there are two other types of meaningful movement patterns that bees do and that are usually described as a dance. The first one is the round dance, in which a bee performs circular movements on the comb in the shape of a figure eight (alternating right and left). The round dance resembles the waggle dance, only without waggling, and it indicates that there is a food source located near the hive. The second type of dance, besides the waggle dance, is called the tremble dance. In the tremble dance, the bee walks in a straight line across the brood comb, shaking and waggling while moving. This type of dance is performed when a foraging bee returns with nectar, but there are not enough worker bees present to help unload and store the nectar.
Do bees communicate with their antennae?
Honey bees have two antennae, that are also called feelers. The word “feelers” describes really well what the antennae actually do – they allow the bees to feel smells and vibrations. Therefore, bees do not technically communicate with their antennae, as they do not use them to send messages, but they do receive messages from the environment and other bees via the antennae.
Karl Von Frisch, The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee (Harcourt, 1961).
Elizabeth Capaldi Evans and Carol A. Butler, Why Do Bees Buzz? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees, Animal Q & A (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010).