The humble honeybee’s hidden dance capabilities

Have you ever wondered how bees communicate with each other? Would you believe me if I told you it was through the medium of interpretive dance? No, I am not joking, and I would love to explain how these incredible little creatures waggle their way through life.

Recently I read a book named The Rhythms of Life by Keon Krietzman, a long overdue read that was recommended by one of my favourite lecturers at university. Not three chapters in I was absolutely hooked. If you hope to learn more about Circadian rhythms and fancy a deep dive into this fascinating part of Biology I can’t recommend it more, it is fantastically well written.

Very early on Krietzman explores the subject of the time-keeping of bees, their communication, and their delightful dance. I found this chapter incredibly eye-opening, reminding me of the complexities of nature that we wander through life completely oblivious to.

Karl von Frisch was an Austrian ethologist who spent a large proportion of his life dedicated to unpicking the conundrum of bee communication and was the first to translate the “waggle dance”. He noticed that upon returning to the hive, a foraging bee performs a peculiar figure of 8 pattern dance. Frisch found that this dance was, in fact, a form of communication in which the bee tells its fellow hive mates the direction of the food/flowers and how far away it is. Frisch coined this the “waggle dance”, which begins with a short run buzzing from side to side, before turning left or right and walking in a semicircle to the beginning. The bee the repeats this but turns to do the semicircle to the opposite side. As humans do, bees from different parts of the world have different tongues (or in this case dances), but the general idea is that the number of waggles and ferocity of buzzing along each run tells the hive mates how far the food is.

The interpretation of direction is slightly more difficult: the bee must translate the 3-dimensional knowledge of the direction into a 2-dimensional dance with no light source to act as the sun inside the hive. In the absence of light gravity provides this reference point, so directly upright is construed as the sun. The short run of the dance is made at an angle to this vertical line, which indicates the angle from the hive the food is located.

In addition to this waggling dance, bees also have a circular dance in their repertoire. This circular dance without waggles signposts that there is a food source near the hive, while the waggle is reserved for food that is 50m + away. This circular dance does not give a direction for others to follow, instead they use the scent of the food/flower to help them track it down.

This is fairly confusing as a jumble of words so please see the diagram below, which was also used in the Rhythms of Life book.

Camhi Diagram

The foraging bee also allows for the suns movement throughout the day and corrects for this when passing on the information, and if they return to the hive too late for others to go out for food they will wait until morning to do the dance and modify it accordingly for the time difference. Amazing!

In order for this to all take place, the bees need to be able to use the sun as a fixed point despite the weather and cloud cover. When sunlight passes through the atmosphere it takes on a polarisation pattern which we humans cannot see. Bees use this pattern of polarisation to deduce the position of the sun and use it as a reference in their internal compass. They can do this due to the strong sensitivity to polarised light in the dorsal photoreceptors of the bees’ eyes. Wehner and Strasser showed this by painting out different parts of the bee’s eyes and studying the behavioural responses and from this calling the group of specialised ommatidia the POL area of the eye.

However, the dance is not always a one-way conversation of orders. If a watching bee has already been to the site of the waggle dancer and had a traumatic or life-threatening experience (such as an attack from predators), they will recognise this. They can then publicly protest and warn others watching by emitting a brief vibrational signal which is accompanied by a headbutt to the dancer. The warning bee may also climb on top of the waggle dancer, I assume if they feel they aren’t getting their point across enough.

Isn’t that crazy impressive?! Researching this boggled my mind, I love that feeling of complete awe and being dumbstruck by how amazingly complex and beautiful the inner workings of our world is – it’s one of the reasons I studied Biology.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed researching it – let me know if there are other studies you think are interesting, or another topic you think would be interesting to research. I’m hoping to use the internet more productively to explore more interesting topics like this as well as emerging science/tech news instead of using the internet solely to binge tv and laugh at memes.


The Rhythms of life: The biological clocks that control the daily lives of every living thing

Honeybee navigation: following routes using polarized-light cues, Srinivasan, Labhart, Dacke, Evangelista, Kraft, 2011

The POL area of the honey bee’s eye: behavioural evidence, Rudiger Wehner & Stephan Strasser, 1985

A Negative Feedback Signal That Is Triggered by Peril Curbs Honey Bee Recruitment, Nieh 2010

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