JULY
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

7-08-99

Dances Speak Louder Than Words For Honey Bees

Animals, it seems, just gotta dance! Animal dances are functional. They are used to attract attention or to communicate with other animals. Outside of required biological functions, such as eating, no activity is more widespread in the animal world than dancing.

We humans also dance. Unlike other animals, we sometimes dance for fun. Or to communicate with higher powers. That is the case with many Native American dances, including the well known “butterfly dance” of the Hopi Tribe. It is a supplication for good crops.

Human dances do provide information. Ballet even tells a story. But when it comes to transfer of information by dancing, humans play second fiddle to honey bees.

The remarkable dance of honey bees is one of the biological wonders of the world. The first written record of the dance of the bees was probably in 1788. In that year, Father Spitzner reported that the dances were used to communicate to the inmates of the hive the place where nectar was located.

In 1823 an old European book recorded that a beekeeper showed his friends dancing bees. Everyone, it was reported, “enjoyed watching the bee ballet.”

The first popular recognition of the dance of the bees followed the publication of “The Language of the Bees” by Frisch in 1923. Frisch described two basic types of bee dances. First is the round dance. The bee runs around in small circles on the comb. The other type is the so-called “waggle” dance. In this dance, the dancer performs a figure-eight pattern. When going through the center part of the eight, she shakes her abdomen, thus the basis for the name of the dance.

Both of these dances communicate the location of material needed by the colony — nectar, pollen or water. The message in the round dance says there is something to collect less than 100 yards from the hive. So the bees responding to this dance just fly out of the hive and search.

The waggle dance communicates direction and distance. For instance, if the dancer is reporting a nectar source directly toward the sun, she will do the waggle part of the dance vertically on the comb. Flowers away from the sun will result in a downward run on the comb. The angle from vertical indicates the angle from the sun.

Several aspects of the dance, including the number of waggles during the run, describe the distance to the source. Also contributing information about distance is the speed of the run and the length of time devoted to the dance. So based on the dance and the odor of the nectar from the dancing bee, the bee that leaves the hive knows which way to go and how far, as well as the type of flower that is there.

While the best-known honey bee dances are to provide information to foraging bees, other reasons for dancing have also been identified. There is a scrubbing dance used to clean surfaces in the hive. Alarm dances warn the hive of problems. Cleaning dances are announcements that a bee is dirty, and she is immediately groomed by other bees.

Humans regard dancing as recreational. We dance for the fun of it. Bee dances are obviously functional. They dance for the information of it. Anyone who watches bees dance realizes that the intensity and excitement of the dance rivals any human dance. You can also imagine that bees enjoy dancing. Otherwise why would bees, like humans, sometimes dance the night away?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox