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Decoding the Waggle Dance: The Science of How Bees Communicate

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Decoding the Waggle Dance: The Science of How Bees Communicate

A scout bee buzzes in, proudly making her presence known. She lands on the dancing platform of the hive, which is her stage, if you will. She does a straight run for one, two, three seconds. It’s pitch-black in the hive, but sight is not needed here. Her hive mates pay close attention, touching her, listening to her buzzes and feeling the vibrations in their antennae. She turns around, circles back and starts the run again, dancing in a figure-eight pattern. All the while, she eagerly buzzes and shakes her abdomen.

To the untrained eye, this little dance doesn’t seem like much. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see an incredibly sophisticated form of communication that reveals a wealth of information. Bees that perform the waggle dance are communicating, with pinpoint accuracy, the location of nesting sites and great sources of pollen. But as the bee population continues to decline, will they still dance with such enthusiasm?

To discuss the sophistication and importance of bees, I caught up with Mark Winston, one of the world’s leading experts on bees and pollination. Winston is an internationally recognized teacher, researcher and writer whose book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, earned him the prestigious 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.

The Work of Karl von Frisch
In 1933, the Nazi government began tightening its grip. At the time, Karl von Frisch worked as the head of the Institute of Zoology at the Institute of Munich. When the Nazi regime passed the Civil Service Law, all public servants, including Frisch, had to show proof of Aryan ancestry. Frisch couldn’t verify the ancestry of one of his grandparents, so he was branded as a “Mischling” of one-eighth Jewish descent.

Frisch was formally allowed to keep his job, but he feared persecution. As bombs dropped over the Institute of Munich, Frisch escaped the city and fled to the mountains. Dark days were ahead, but this time of complete isolation would bear fruit to Frisch’s greatest work: decoding the waggle dance language.

“Karl von Frisch coped with World War II by completely immersing himself in his work,” Winston says. “Frisch conducted extraordinary experiments that followed the waggle dance and related it back to the distance and direction that the bees were following,” he adds. “Scientists knew that bees performed this dance, but no one understood the function of the dance until Frisch put two and two together. Frisch dramatically advanced our understanding of bee behavior, and his work earned him the Nobel Prize.”

Understanding the Waggle Dance
Frisch found that the waggle dance communicated, very precisely, the location of a food supply, the distance of a resource from the nest and the angle of the sun in relation to that resource. “The duration of the waggle, when the bee buzzes and shakes her abdomen, communicates the distance of the flowers,” Winston says. “If she buzzes for two seconds, the flowers may be around 100 meters away,” he adds. “She also buzzes at an angle that corresponds to the direction of polarized light rays from the sun.”

So, the distance of a resource is communicated by the timing of the dance, the direction by the angle of the dance, and the quality of the resource by how enthusiastically the dancing bee buzzes and shakes her abdomen.

“It’s remarkable that an organism with a brain the size of a pinhead can locate, very precisely, the distance and direction of a patch of blooming flowers,” Winston says. “Bees are also capable of using the sun as a compass, and they can remember landmarks,” he adds. “Bees are extraordinary creatures.”

The Importance of Bees
It’s clear that bees are highly sophisticated and social creatures. How bees contribute to Mother Earth, however, is quite simple: “Bees pollinate flowers, and that simple interaction is so important for the world’s plants and crops,” Winston tells me. But, unfortunately, a number of low-level stressors are bringing about catastrophic outcomes for bees.

Winston tells me that, if bees disappear from the face of the earth, at least a third of our food will vanish along with them. “Some non-bee-pollinated crops like wheat and corn would survive,” he says, “but the fruit, the vegetables, the flowers, those would all be gone.” These plants and flowers create habitat for other insects and animals, and Winston predicts that this kind of scenario would have dire consequences for the entire food chain.

Death by a Thousand Cuts
“The bee population isn’t about to completely disappear,” Winston says, “but it’s the slow degrading of the environment that’s like death by a thousand cuts.” So, what’s thought to be causing the decline of the bee population? One big area of concern is the use of neonicotinoids, which are among the most toxic pesticides ever created.

A study published in Nature found substantial evidence that neonicotinoids have a negative impact on wild bees. According to a different study, also published in Nature, reproductive anatomy and physiology were compromised in pesticide-exposed queen bees.

Bees also face the threat of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which may be caused by the invasive varroa mite, new or emerging bee diseases, habitat changes and poor nutrition, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests.

The existence of bees and humans together on Earth is, in a sense, symbiotic, and the decline of the bee population isn’t something to take lightly. “We should be partners rather than exploiters,” Winston reminds us, “and that’s the other side of what we need to learn from bees.” By appreciating the sophistication and importance of bees, we can begin to understand the urgency of protecting them.

“Bees are highly social organisms that are defined by their ability to communicate with each other and collaborate,” Winston says. “I’m drawn to the idea of how an individual might immerse themselves in the collective and maintain their individual identity while contributing to something that’s bigger than themselves,” he adds. “By looking at bees environmentally,” Winston says “we’re reminded of our responsibility to steward the environment around us.”

Photo by Bill Damon, CC-BY


Tanya Roberts is a perpetually curious writer covering the science of how things work.

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