Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Dance, Honey Bee Dance

Dancing, according to my trusty dictionary, is a patterned succession of movements. That's the reason we humans take dance lessons. We sometimes have to learn the steps.

Dances can be done alone or with others. Many human dances are performed to music. Some humans have even been known to dance in the rain. What was the deal with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire anyway?

Human dances have long been performed to convey messages. Many dances of Native Americans were supplications for good crops or preparation for war.

Humans aren't the only dancers in the animal world. Birds and insects perform dances to attract the opposite sex. So, for that matter, do humans! Dog owners also recognize an apparent dance for joy by their canines. None probably as accomplished as the ear-spinning, toe-waggling aerial pirouettes by everyone's favorite cartoon pooch, Snoopy!

When it comes to dancing, no animal, human or otherwise, does it like the honey bees. Honey bees are famous for their dances. Honey bee dances are an important communication tool. That is why the honey bee dance is sometimes called the language of the bees.

How does the dance work? The primary function of the honey bee dance is to communicate location of a nectar source. To do this, a returning foraging bee will do one of two dances on the comb in the hive. The first is called a round dance, because the path the bee follows is round. This indicates that the nectar source is less than 100 m from the hive. In other words, the bee is telling other field bees to go out of the hive and look around within 100 m for the flowers.

The more complex, and more famous, dance is called the waggle dance. In this instance, the dancing bee waggles her abdomen in the straight part of a figure-eight dance pattern. The direction of the waggle part of the dance communicates direction relative to the sun. For instance, if the dance is away from gravity, up on the comb, the nectar source is toward the sun.

The abdomen wiggling is accompanied by sound pulses. The number of pulses is used to convey to other bees the distance to the flowers. A short flight means less pulses, a longer flight more. So, for increasing distances, the waggle runs take longer.

These dances are designed to recruit new foragers to the food source. On a first trip, the bees follow the route outlined in the dance. Once they find the food, based on the route they learned, they improvise and make return trips, according to landmarks along the way.

Returning bees do, however, dance to communicate with other bees, and their dance is based on the direction of the sun. They even correct for the movement of the sun across the sky, even though research has shown that sun position is not of much importance to returning foragers.

Another dance that loaded, returning bees do is called a tremble dance. In honey bee colonies, the loaded bees are unloaded by hive bees. When the incoming nectar exceeds the ability of the hive bees to unload the foragers, the field bees begin to back up.

When this happens, the loaded bees do what is a distinctive shaking motion and create a vibration on the comb. This stops other bees from doing their field dances until all incoming bees are unloaded. In human terms, the bee is stamping her feet and saying something like “Stop that waggling and get over here and take this nectar!” Even dancing bees can get a little surly when they have to wait in line for the dance floor.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox