One-two-three, One-two-three: The Dance of Honey Bees Decoded

November 27, 2009
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Throughout history, dance has been an important essential to culture. It has been used to represent everything from marriage to war. However, did you know that for some “individuals” it’s the key to survival? This would be the case for the honey bee. This tiny, intelligent creature has existed for thousands of years, evolving into the clever insect it is today. It hasn’t been known till recent centuries that a bee can tell others in his hive where to find food sources simply by…dancing!

For years, scientists have been fascinated by the abilities of the honey bee. It was first noted by Aristotle, over 2,000 years ago, that “successful foragers recruit with their colleagues to find rich food sources.” In 1788, Reverend Ernst Spitzner began studying honey bee hives using “observation hives”, invented around the year 1700 and constructed out of two plates of glass so that individuals could clearly see the inner workings of the hives. In his notes he wrote, “When a bee comes upon a good supply of honey [nectar] anywhere, on her return home she makes this known in a peculiar way to the others. Full of joy, she twirls in circles about those in the hive, from above downwards and from below upwards, so that they shall surely notice the smell of honey on her, for many of them soon follow when she goes out once again.” If only Rev. Spitzner knew that he was touching only the tip of the iceberg. In 1901, scientist Maurice Maeterlinck was the first to notice bee dances. He completed a study where he marked a single bee with a paint dot. He followed the bee, where it flew from the hive to small patch of flowers a few meters away. From this point, the bee flew back to the hive, twirled around a bit, and, without following the original bee with the paint dot, the other bees were easily able to discover the location of the patch of flowers. From these findings, scientists explored further to discover that there were two types of dances used by bees.

When communicating food locations, honey bees use either of the two types of dances which are the round dance and the waggle dance. The round dance is for describing locations up to 75 meters away from the hive and it consists of the forager bee moving in clockwise circles around the other bees and then switching directions and moving counter-clockwise. The other is the waggle dance which is used for describing locations 90 meters away or farther. This dance consists of the bee “waggling” to and fro at a rapid pace and walking forward, in a straight line. Once the bee finishes moving forward it turns around (turning either left or right), and going back the direction it came from. The bee repeats this a second time only when coming back it turns to the opposite direction (either left or right) other than what it turned the first time. What affects the patterns of the dance is the location of the sun in reference to the food source. For example, if the sun is at an 80 degree angle from the food the bee will alter its dance pattern by 80 degrees to tell the other bees exactly where the food is. It is a custom that every day bees will leave the hive to the exact angle of the sun’s location the previous day, to notice the difference between angles and discover where the new food is that day. This is crucial for the bees so that they can adapt from the ever-changing position of the sun in the sky each day. By learning this, the bees can efficiently keep up their precise strategy to locate food for the hive. It has been noted by scientists that on cloudy or partly cloudy days, bees have had difficulty giving precise directions because the sun is not completely visible. Honey bees across the globe have different patterns of sun-orientation due to the location of the honey bee hive. For example, hives in North America vary greatly to those located in southern Africa due to the different hemispheres and position of the sun. That’s why it’s so incredibly fascinating to study the forager techniques of the honey bee because their dances and calculations can be so precise that it’s astonishing.
As humans, we often think of smaller creatures as “inferior” and less intelligent, when in fact it’s just the opposite. If we think about it, honey bees have been around for just as long as we have and, with the passing years, have evolved and morphed into what they are today. They have horded their techniques and have improved them to the best of their abilities. Discovering what works and what doesn’t, the honey bee can formulate its dances to help see that the hive can be as successful as it can be. My friend, and retired bee keeper, Steve Hazeltine quoted, “Bees are such fascinating little creatures that have developed many successful maneuvers to help them survive. Without their dancing communication, honey bees would not be able to get food for the hive. Their very lives are dependent on dancing. Without it, they could not eat and therefore, they would die.”
As you can tell, dancing and its relation to the sun are the crucial factors for honey bee survival. Without it, bees would not be able to obtain food or transmit messages to one other. It is the very fiber of their being because it is what enables them to survive and build up a successful hive. So the next time you think of dancing, don’t think of it as something silly or just for fun, because as you know now, some little bee’s life is dependent on it.





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Kate said...
Dec. 11, 2009 at 11:56 am
OMG, I love it Korina!! <3
 
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