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The waggle dance - how bees communicate

The waggle dance - how bees communicate

Dance like nobody is watching… is great advice for people who want to feel free and enjoy every minute of their life, without any inhibitions. But it takes on another meaning if those dance moves need to be translated into instructions – on how to find food.

You probably don’t now this but honey bees have their own language; a way of communicating with their hive mates through the art of a dance, and it is through this dance the forager bee gives instructions to the hive on where to find their food.

What is this dance and where does it begin?

We tend to think of Honey Bees as nature’s perfect little ‘robots’, highly organised, rigid communities of productive and task-oriented creatures, all with their specific roles, with the ultimate aim being to serve their Queen. So, it would make sense that a honey bee dance would be finely tuned and methodical.

However, it turns out that the honey bees are pretty untidy dancers which makes it hard for the other bees to interpret the dance, and decide what it is they have to do, especially as the main purpose for the dance is to keep the whole colony fed.

The Waggle Dance

It’s called the ‘waggle dance’ due to the way it is performed, and it is the bee’s way of communicating to the hive where the best food sources are. Through this dance, the worker bee communicates both the distance and direction of the food through particular movements, and uses the dance to direct the bees to the job of gathering nectar and pollen.


What does the waggle dance look like?

When a bee performs a waggle dance, she will run directly ahead for a short distance, then return to the starting point in a semi-circle, run directly ahead again, then make a semi-circle in the opposite direction, thus completing a figure eight series of movements.

During the straight line part of the dance, the bee’s abdomen wags vigorously from side to side, and this vibration of the bee’s body produces a sort of tail-wagging gesture, hence the name.

During the waggle dance, the bee emits a buzzing sound which is produced by beating its wings at a low audio frequency. As the distance to the food source increases, the waggle part of the dance increases.

This dance conveys information to the other bees in the hive about the direction and distance to flowers for nectar and pollen.

Bee resting on flower

The duration of the dance and number of vibrations, lets the other bees know the exact distance. With this information on board, they store just enough nutrients for this distance and then set out on the journey.

How incredible is that?

Who discovered the honey bee dance?

The late Karl von Frisch, an Austrian ethologist, is credited with interpreting the meaning of honey bee dance movements. His work centred on investigating the sensory perceptions of the Honey Bee and during these observations, he was one of the first to translate the meaning of the ‘waggle dance’.

The experiments used glass-walled observation hives and individually-marked bee foragers. The bees were trained to find food at sources placed at known distances from the colony. On returning from food gathering, the researchers carefully measured both the duration and angle of the dance performed and it was these findings that led them to the concept of communication through the language of dance.

Each bee dances to their own tune

Other research found something else that was interesting: the dancing code wasn’t consistent from one bee to another and each bee possessed her own calibration. They concluded that it was possible that the bees in this study had an especially inconsistent dance code and this could have been due to the bee colonies having a mixed genetic origin.

Other studies have also revealed that waggle dances aren’t very precise and the effectiveness of the message from the dance is very low.

The study concluded that while the waggle dance may not be that precise, it probably didn’t matter and that the dance itself, was good enough to find the food sources.

Most of the dance followers will end up somewhere close to the food source indicated through the dance and the others will not be far away.

Although this is fascinating information and add to our amazement of these intelligent little creatures, we don’t have to follow the honey bee for our source of food.

Bee Plus Manuka Honey Jars

Bee Plus Manuka Honey produces this amazing superfood with the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) for us to enjoy directly from their hives, and they are proud to be one of few companies who are licenced to use the UMF trademark.



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