Non-Human Languages: The Bee Dance Language

A honeybee hive is often located some distance away from the flowers the bees have to visit. In nature, it’s often so that flowers are concentrated in specific areas around the hive, rather than distributed evenly all around it (Steffan-Dewenter & Kuhn, 2003). It’s not so that a foraging bee can fly off in a random direction and land on an optimal food source.

Aristotle noted in 350 B.C. that a bee will often return to a flower with three or four bees in tow. In fact, if you observe bees for enough time, you will notice that when a location is scouted, the scouting bee will come back to the hive and fly around in a figure-of-eight pattern in front of its hivemates. This is the bee’s waggle dance (von Frisch, 1967), the discovery of which netted Karl von Frisch a Nobel Prize in 1973, although his contributions and interpretations of the dance as a language were controversial for some time (Wenner, 1967).

It’s used to recruit hivemates and tell them almost exactly where the food source is (Esch et al., 2001). I say almost, because it’s not perfect: the recruited bees will still need to refer to olfactory or visual cues to pinpoint the precise location (Riley et al., 2005). The fuzziness is unavoidable due to the lack of a precise way to measure distances when flying. Unlike ants who can count their steps, bees are forced to measure the amount of motion captured by the retina while flying, and that’s just not very precise (Srinivasan & Zhang, 1999). However, this is not a bad thing, and is exploited by the honeybees to provide a wider geographic area for the foragers to explore.

The waggle dance proceeds in a fairly stereotypical manner. Consider this the syntax or the grammar, if you’re so inclined.

  1. Waggle phase: Scout returns to the comb, waggles its abdomen around 15 times per second for 1-11 seconds, while moving forward.
  2. Return phase: Bee flies in a semicircle back to near its original starting point.
  3. Repeat several times, even up to more than 100 times. Clockwise and anti-clockwise direction for the return phase may be alternated.

This may seem like some sort of simplistic ritual, but it’s a tremendously sophisticated system of communication that hints at some pretty high intelligence, with the combination of memory, processing, and symbolic information transfer that this all involves. Here is an incomplete list of the conveyed information in just those three steps.

  • The forward motion of each waggle phase is in a slightly different direction. The average of these directions, relative to gravity, is the angle between the direction to the sun and to the foraging spot (von Frisch, 1967). Yes, this changes dynamically to compensate for the sun moving across the sky (New & New, 1962).
  • The duration of each waggle phase is equal to the distance travelled (De Marco & Menzel, 2005).
  • The number of repetitions correlates with the quality of the foraging site (Seeley et al., 2000).

This alone is more than enough to provide a fairly accurate description of where to go – direction and distance are all encoded in. But there are other pieces of information encoded in the dance, still needing to be deciphered (Michelsen, 1999). For example, what role do the pheromones released by the dancer play (Thom et al., 2007)? What about all the vibrations produced by the dance on the comb surface (Tautz, 1996)? What about the 3D air flow pattern produced by the wings and the waggle (Michelsen, 2003)? Those dancers are encoding a lot more information than we’re measuring, and the recruits are perceiving much more than our human eyes and brains can.

The waggle dance is only one aspect of the dance language of bees, which is in fact a very elaborate communication system (Dyer, 2002). For another use of bee dancing, look at tropical honeybees that undergo seasonal migrations. They perform an alternative dance, the migration or absconding dance, which is fundamentally different than the waggle dance (Beekman et al., 2008). This dance serves to communicate the direction that the colony will be moving towards; there is little mention of the distance, except that it’s far longer than regular foraging (Schneider & McNally, 1994). The main differences between the two is the slow pace of the migration dance, its arrhythmicity, and the fact that it doesn’t immediately recruit hivemates to follow (Beekman et al., 2008), probably because such migrations are not immediate actions but require decision-making and a consensus from the hive (Schaerf et al., 2011).

I love the bee dance language because it’s the perfect showcase of non-hardwired behaviours in insects. No two dances are the same, all of them are generated dynamically depending on the environment. It goes directly against the misleading characterisation of insects as automatons, a characterisation I hate, although it must also be stressed that dance “syntaxes” are species-specific. Nevertheless, the discovery of this dance language came as a shock (Munz, 2005), and still managed to shock those people who think language is a talent that only the super duper amazing Human can pull off.


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