Groove is in the hive

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Biology / Ecology / Zoology

Let’s talk about waggles, not Wiggles. Honeybees have long been famous for their intricate ‘waggle dances’, a series of moves telling other bees where to find food. And scientists have become incredibly good at eavesdropping on their complex conversations. But how do animals with such tiny brains communicate in so much detail?

Working 9 to 5

Imagine you’re a worker honeybee. That means you’re female but you don’t get to reproduce. You live in a hive of 60,000 other bees and you’ll only live to the ripe old age of about six weeks.

During that time you’ll have a variety of different tasks to do. In the early days you’ll be responsible for cleaning the hive, looking after the queen (the only female who gets to reproduce) and repairing and building new wax honeycombs.

Later in life it will be your job to leave the hive to search for pollen and nectar. Nectar is what becomes honey after some nifty processing by the bees.

When you hit the jackpot — flowers offering lots of tasty nectar – you need to return to the hive and share the goss.

Without much of a brain, giving exact directions would seem like a tricky task. But even Aristotle knew that bees are clearly able to do just that, by of all things, dancing.

How do bees communicate? Through interpretive dance, of course! Image credit: Trypode via Flickr (

How do bees communicate? Through interpretive dance, of course! Image credit: Trypode via Flickr

Choreography matters

The person who worked out how bees achieve this impressive feat was an Austrian scientist by the name of Karl von Frisch. His creative and painstaking research earned him the Nobel Prize in 1973.

Von Frisch marked individual bees within a swarm and watched closely where they went and what they did when they returned to the hive. Over decades of careful experiments he decoded the waggle dance.

The dance has a few key characteristics. After returning to the hive a ‘scout’ bee moves to the ‘dance floor’, a particular area on the honeycomb.

The simplest type of honeybee dance is the Round Dance — this lets other bees know that there is a good food source very close to the hive, usually within 50 metres.

But bees may forage more than 15 kilometres from the hive. To give directions to food further away, the bees waggle to communicate very accurately how to find that food.

The waggle is the first phase of the dance. Imagine the shape of a coffee bean — two semi-circles with a line down the middle. The bee waggles side to side while buzzing down that middle line, then turns either left or right and returns to the starting point via a semi-circle. The pattern also looks a bit like a figure-eight.

The bee repeats this pattern up to 100 times, thereby communicating three key pieces of information.

Direction, distance and quality

The angle of the forward waggle relative to an invisible vertical line is the direction of the flowers relative to the sun. So straight up means towards the sun. And the bees even update this angle as the sun moves across the sky. Now that is impressive!

But of course just knowing the direction of the food isn’t enough. The bees need to know how far they have to fly. No problem, the number of waggles in one figure-8 corresponds to the distance to the food.

Finally, the number of repetitions of the figure-8 pattern communicates the quality of the food source – just how much nectar is up for grabs.

The discovery that animals could communicate in such detail, and more-over symbolically caused a sensation.History of science researcher Dr Tania Munz

I think it’s fair to say outside of primates, this is the most complex animal communication we know about.

Now scientists have started to use the information they collect from honeybee dances to help with their own work. They argue that instead of spending huge amounts of time and money surveying habitats on foot, bees can tell us a lot about the quality and health of our natural habitats.

And how do animals like bees manage this feat of complex communication? We have no idea.

And sadly time to solve that mystery many be running out because bees are steadily disappearing from all over the world.

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