Bees: What is a Waggle dance?
After their 15 minutes of fame in the local press:
Our bees are very happy in their beautiful new hives painted by the children of Kinlochleven and Ballachulish Primary Schools and Kinlochleven High School which is shown getting its bees added in the two photos below.
In the months of July and August all bees are at their busiest collecting as much flower nectar as their little bodies will carry. When a worker bee has found a really great flower source, she tells all her associates back at the hive about it in a sequence of movements the scientists call the ‘waggle dance’. That’s a technical term!
So what does the waggle dance look like, and what does it mean? The late Karl Von Frisch, an Austrian Ethologist (Ethology is the study of animal behaviour) spent a great deal of his time watching bees. He and his research students painstakingly recorded and mapped the different movements in a waggle dance during decades of research.
They used observation beehives with glass walls, and placed sources of nectar at measured locations from each hive. Marking certain bees, they would watch as each bee discovered the nectar source and returned to the hive, then recorded and measured the angles of each component of the dance in order to see whether the dance had anything to do with the flower source discovery.
What they concluded was that the dance was a form of language. Two pieces of information are indicated in the dance – distance from the hive and direction of the flower source. Von Frisch separated out three distinct dances: the round dance, the sickle dance and the waggle (or wag-tail) dance.
If the distance is less than 50 meters the knowledgeable scouting bee performs a round dance, running round and round very quickly on the comb in narrow circles and sometimes changing direction. Both before and after this round dance she generously distributes some of the new flower nectar to other bees. This tells them the food source is close to the hive.
It is likely that the floral odours on the body are widely spread using this method so the other bees get a heady scent of what they are to sniff out. Also odour from the bee’s own scent gland is left on the flower source; the bees get a whiff of this scent too during her energetic dance. So they are left in no doubt where to fly to get this gorgeous new nectar from, and it isn’t far!
At a distance of between 50 and 150 meters from the hive the bee starts to change her dance routine. She uses the sickle dance – a move which is transitional between the round and the waggle dance. This is a crescent shaped dance which may contain an element of directional information.
But it is the waggle dance which is the most complex. The bee gives an extemporary performance which tells the other bees not only where to fly but how far. This dance is reserved for the most distant sources. A bee can travel up to five miles in search of food in a single day.
For a full and frank display of the waggle dance see this very short youtube video:
The bee is performing her dance on the vertical honey combs. So the position of the sun is taken as the top of the vertical, and where the angle of the bee’s ‘waggle’ is to the vertical, directly mirrors the angle in relation to the sun at which the other bees must fly to reach the source. The time taken over the waggling tail section directly correlates to the distance. So, for instance, if it’s a 2 second waggle, scientists have worked out that the source is approximately 2200 meters away. Pretty clever for a creature the size of a thumbnail.
Not all bees take notice of the waggle dance of their excited hive-mates. Experiments show that in temperate climates other bees take notice and forage in the given direction only about 10% of the time. This figure rises when food sources are rarer. That is because in a temperate climate bees are blessed with many and varied food sources. The average bee has a clear idea of where to find its own food and is less likely to waste energy by listening to and following the directions of another bee, no matter how excited it is! However when food is scarce, in tropical or colder climates, it makes sense to pay attention to the latest news report!
It is thought that the waggle dance originally evolved from proclaiming potential new nest sites, and was adapted to include foraging sites, possibly during hard times. Scientists have also noted that bees of different countries have different dance ‘dialects’. There may be a difference in length of time to communicate distance, or a variation in the circular movements. When different colonies of bees are put together, they are able to gradually decipher each other’s dialect, like learning a foreign language, proving that honey bees really are the smartest insects on the planet! Let’s hope that our (arguably less smart) species soon turns a corner in the fight to keep them in our lives.