Do the Waggle Dance

Thursday, 27 July 2023

There are multiple forms of communication that honey bees utilize. Like many other animals, honey bees communicate with the use of vibrations and pheromones. But perhaps a more unique form of communication they use is dance. Honey bees have special dances performed by the worker bees that provide information about resources around the hive. Read this week’s blog to learn about the communicative dances honey bees perform.

Do the Waggle Dance 

There are a couple of special dances performed by worker bees to inform the hive about a food source and the location. The most famous of these dances is the waggle dance. Often when performing these dances, the workers provide a sample from the source to other foragers using trophallaxis. The returning forager also carries the smell of pollen and/or nectar, which provides more information about the food source to other bees.

The significance of the waggle dance is for foraging bees to notify other foragers when resources are more than 100 meters away from the hive. To notify, the bee moves in a figure eight pattern. More specifically, it is a straight run in the middle of the pattern with two semi-circle movements on either side. This provides information about the distance and direction of the resource (von Frisch, 1967). The waggle dance also informs bees of the quality of the resource (von Frisch, 1967).

There is also another dance that provides information about resources. The round dance informs bees when a resource is less than 15 meters away from a hive. The bee will dance in a round pattern, which tells other members of the colony that the resource is nearby. The round dance does not provide any information about the exact distance or direction of the resource (Frisch, 1967). However, that information is less essential when the resource is nearby.

There are some sceptics who believe that these dances may have no communication value, and that bees locate sources of food based on the scent left behind from previous foragers (Gadagkar, 1996). While bees can find food based on such odours, past experiments convincingly demonstrate that bees can also find food in the absence of smell. This once again suggests that bees find food based on information communicated through dance or possibly sound (Gadagkar, 1996). It has been suggested that honey bees recruit foragers using buzzing flights. These flights take place close to the resource and is another method bees utilize to locate food (Tautz and Sandeman, 2003).

Given that honey bees can find food sources by only using scent, it brings to question if dance communication provides an advantage to foraging bees. A study done by Okada et al. (2014) determined that colonies of honey bees that use the waggle dance have a significantly greater number of successful visits to food sources than colonies that do not use communication or use random dance communication. The experiment was performed with the use of virtual colonies and provides support that the waggle dance still has value in foraging ability.

Finally, several studies completed in the last decade suggest that human-modified habitats are having an impact on the value of dance language. Human-modified habitats are often characterized by mass-flowering crops that may be easy to find and profitable in spring.  However, once these crops have finished flowering, the environment becomes numerous low-quality foraging sites, and the dance’s value may be diminished (Nürnberger et al. 2017; Couvillon et al. 2014). These types of environments have many discrete foraging locations, but their quality is poor and the cost of recruitment to these sites outweighs the benefits. In summary, human impact may have created environments in which honey bee dance communication is not suited (Price, 2019).

Schematic of honey bee communicative dances (Frisch,1967)

Interestingly, honey bees are the only known group of bees that uses nest-based communication to provide information about food resources (Price and Grüter, 2015). The use of dance to communicate is just one of the reasons that honey bees are a highly productive and organized group.

Connecting with ATTTA Specialists

If you’d like to connect with ATTTA specialists or learn more about our program, you can:

Couvillon, M.J., Fensome, K.A., Quah, S.K., and Schürch, R. 2014. Summertime blues: August foraging leaves honey bees empty-handed. Commun. Integr. Biol.
Frisch, Karl von. 1967. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 566.
Gadagkar, R. 1996. The honeybee dance-language controversy. Resonance. 1(1): 63 – 70. doi:10.1007/bf02838860
Nürnberger, F., Steffan-Dewenter, I., and Härtel, S. 2017. Combined effects of waggle dance communication and landscape heterogeneity on nectar and pollen uptake in honey bee colonies. Peer J.
Price, R., Grüter, C. 2015. Why, when and where did honey bee dance communication evolve? Frontiers in Evolution and Ecology.
Price, R. et al. 2019. Honey bees forage more successfully without the “dance language” in challenging environments. Sci. Adv.
Tautz, J. and Sandeman, D.C. 2003. Recruitment of honeybees to non-scented food sources. J. Comp. Physiol. A Neuroethol. Sens. Neural. Behav. Physiol.