More on bee dancing and insect intelligence

A reader emailed me with an observation after reading my article on the bee dance language: while looking at a bee performing a dance, he heard a little squeak, after which the bee suddenly stopped dancing. This guy is both brave and has the best ears that have ever graced this Earth.

This observation that he made is not just a weird fluke. It’s actually a worker bee telling the dancer to shut up.

Noises made by workers during dances were documented by several researchers in the 1960s, including the seminal work by von Frisch in 1967, but they were consistently misinterpreted as begging for food.

With thorough experimentation, Nieh (1993) corrected the record, and those results were reliably reconfirmed and expanded by Pastor & Seeley (2005) (there was a flaw in Nieh’s work in that the bees had too much food available, P&S correct this), so that we now know that after the squeaky sound, no food is exchanged. The dancing bee just stops dancing and goes away, presumably crying and with dark clouds brewing over her cerebral ganglia.

To find out why this behaviour occurs, we need to remember what the waggle dance is for: to tell foragers where a food source is.The bees that produce the stop signal are most often those that have already been foraging. By emmitting the stop signal, they are effectively saying that the advertised foraging source is somehow unworthy, and stopping the others from going to that place again.

Nieh (2010) did an experiment in which he grabbed bees’s femurs with forceps when they were at a foraging source, simulating a predator attack. Sure enough, those bees then emitted a stop signal back at the hive to stop other bees from going there and getting hurt.

Another use of the waggle dance is to tell workers about potential new nest sites. These sites are visited and then democratically voted upon in a process very similar to modern elections: the bees proposing the candidates have a dance-off.

Seeley et al. (2012) studied the election process with video cameras and microphones (there may also be news commentary), and found that votes against a nest site were expressed by using the stop signal to stop the bee from dancing. Additionally, once the elections are done, the dance show is terminated with stop signalś so that the bees can get ready for the migration.

I often get criticised that I overemphasise and exaggerate animal intelligence. That may be true, but once you learn more about such behaviours and social mechanisms as described here, you really should start wondering whether your definition of intelligence is too narrowly-focused on just humans.

There is an older argument that such behaviours of bees or ants are simple on their own, but since the entire colony is in concert, they provide a semblance of intelligence that’s not really there. But what you have demonstrated in the waggle dance and the stop signal is the ability of an individual bee to give directions and to report on past events. That is quite a lot of intelligence for a brain that is smaller than a pinhead.

There was a recent report in Nature, by Mischiati et al. (2015), that found that dragonflies are able to predict where their prey is going to be – the same trick humans use when driving, when throwing anything, when playing pool. As we investigate more and more insect behaviours, we will surely find more evidence of thinking in them.

In my opinion, intelligence is not something that is taxonomically or systematically-bounded. It is a function of the ecological life history of an organism: dragonflies are aerial ambush predators. Without the ability to predict flight paths, they would be failures. Bee colonies are pretty big, with individual foragers having some degree of power and control due to its democratic nature, so a proper communication system with intelligence is needed for the whole superorganism to function. Cephalopods are renowned for their intelligence. It evolved because they have no shell to protect them, only their wits.

But I do admit these are just my working theories at the moment, but they sure make more sense to me than saying such flexible behaviours are hardwired. (To clarify, the capacity to do such a behaviour may well be genetic, but the knowledge of when to do what is learned.)


Mischiati M, Lin H-T, Herold P, Imler E, Olberg R & Leonardo A. 2015Internal models direct dragonfly interception steeringNature 517, 333-338.

Nieh JC. 1993The stop signal of honey bees: reconsidering its messageBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 33, 51-56.

Nieh JC. 2010A Negative Feedback Signal That Is Triggered by Peril Curbs Honey Bee RecruitmentCurrent Biology 20, 310-315.

Pastor KA & Seeley TD. 2005The Brief Piping Signal of the Honey Bee: Begging Call or Stop Signal? Ethology 111, 775-784.

Seeley TD, Visscher PK, Schlegel T, Hogan PM, Franks NR & Marshall JAR. 2012Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision-Making by Honeybee SwarmsScience 335, 108-111.

Von Frisch, K. 1967. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees.

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