Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Bees Put The Bop In Bebop!

Dancing is a human activity as old as humanity itself. We waltz; we tap dance; we do the old soft shoe; we even have been known to scoot a boot or two in a modern version of a rural favorite, the barnyard stomp. Human dances have been used as a tool of communication. For example, ritualistic dances of primitive peoples were often designed to send a message to the gods. The highly sophisticated art form of ballet is used to tell a story to the audience.

We humans aren't the only animals that dance, though. From birds to bugs, nature is full of dancing animals. Animal dances primarily are used to communicate within species. The dances send a message that a territory is occupied or that the dancer desires a mate

Of the many species of insects that communicate through dance, none is better known than the honey bee. The dance of the bees is used to share information about nectar sources. How this dance functions is one of the marvels of the insect world.

Honey bees transmit two important bits of information in their dance. One of the common patterns used by dancing bees is a figure eight. When the bee goes through the middle of the eight she waggles her abdomen from side to side. The dance is sometimes called the waggle dance after this habit. Bees can count, and the number of waggles tells the bees about how far away the nectar source is.

The orientation on the honey comb of the waggle part of the dance tells the direction of the nectar source from the hive. This information is based on the location of the sun in the sky. For instance, a nectar source directly toward the sun would translate into a dance where the waggle run is vertical on the comb. A patch of flowers away from the sun would result in a waggle dance downward on the comb. The dancing bees also share a taste of the nectar with other bees so they will know the type of flower they are seeking. The dance of the bees is a recruitment activity, with some bees following the steps of the returning forager until they have information necessary to find the flowers. Then the recruits take off to bring in a load of nectar, whereupon they will be the dancers, provided the nectar source continues to be a good one.

For sheer energy and intensity, the dance of the bees, in human terms, is certainly an upbeat kind of dance. Could it be that bees put the bop in the bebop long before the beboppers were bopping to that new jazz sound?


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann