Monday, May 11, 2020

The Waggle: Interpretive Dance of the Honey Bee

honeybeeHoney bee colonies contain three distinct castes of individuals.  Each hive contains a single female queen, tens of thousands of female workers, and anywhere from several hundred to several thousand male drones during the Spring and Summer.

Female workers bees are solely responsible for bringing two main resources back to the hive.  These two resources both come from a flower: nectar and pollen.  These workers diligently search for flowers with the most of these two resources which are vitally important for the survival of the hive.

Bees see the world in a very different way than humans.  Bees have difficulty distinguishing red colors but are astute at seeing blues, greens, and purples.  Bees see colors we cannot, they can see ultraviolet light which helps bees see secret patterns flowers display to show where nectar is hidden.  They seek out and remember which flower species is the most rewarding.  This can change over time.  A species of flower that had the most nectar one month might not be the species with the most nectar the next month.  

Once a bee finds a good flower, she collects resources and returns to the hive to communicate flower location using a special dance: The Waggle.  The waggle dance is a special figure of eight dance that is done by the honey bee in its hive. By this, a worker tells others where it has found bountiful resources.  This was shown by the Austrian ethologist Karl Von Frisch.  The primary importance of this dance is to give other bees information about the direction and distance to flowers loaded with nectar or pollen or both, in hopes of recruiting help to collect.  It can also be used to show the way to water.

The waggle dance is made up of one to 100 or more circuits.  Each circuit having two phases.  The phases are the waggle phase and the return phase.  When a bee returns to the hive after finding good resources, she performs this dance.  The finding bee will run through a small wave-like pattern called a waggle run or waggle phase.  After this, she will turn to the right and circle back to the starting point called the return phase.  She will then do another waggle run and then turn to the left and circle back to the beginning.  The waggle phase of the dance is the most notable and informative part of the dance.

The direction and duration of waggle runs show the direction and distance to flowers.  Flowers that are located directly in line with the sun are shown by waggle runs in an upward direction on the vertical combs.  If the flowers are at an angle to the right or left of the sun, the waggle run is done at the same angle to the upward direction.  The distance between hive and flowers is shown in the duration of the waggle runs.  The farther the flowers are from the hive, the longer the waggle phase.  For every 100 meters and the flowers are distant from the hive, the waggle phase lasts about 75 milliseconds.

The sun plays a major role in providing compass information, as is evident with honey bees and the waggle dance.  To use the sun as a compass, insects must solve two fundamental issues:  the sun moves during the day and the sun is often hidden by clouds.  Honey bees compensate for the daily movement of the sun by learning its position relative to the time of the day.  Bees have innate knowledge of the sun’s movement, and know that the sun’s position changes slowly near dawn and dusk and more quickly around noon.  Combining this knowledge with observed sun positions relative to stable environmental landmarks allows bees to learn and accurate function describing how the sun moves throughout the day.  We know about the innate knowledge of bees following experiments where new foragers have their experience of sun position restricted to the morning.  In orientation tests in the afternoon, bees show that they have fitted their morning experience of the sun’s position to a step-shaped template which includes information about the rapid sun movement around noon to slower sun movement late in the day.

When the sun is obscured by clouds, but portions of blue sky remain, bees are able to derive compass information form the polarization patterns created by the scattering of sunlight in the upper atmosphere.  The orientation of polarized light forms concentric circles around the sun’s position, and if a bee knows the time of day, she can retrieve compass information from any patch of blue sky.  Bees are therefore, able to use the sun as a compass even when it is not in view.  To detect these polarization patterns, most diurnal insects as with bees, have compound eyes that have special dorsal areas that are sensitive to the direction of polarized light.  There will however be overcast days when no celestial compass information is available.  On these days, bees use the same prominent landmarks they used as references when learning about the movement of the sun. 

Path integration allows bees to explore unfamiliar terrain while being connected to the starting point of their journey by the distance and the direction information required for a direct route back to the start.  Bees can store the path integration coordinates of a profitable location and use this integration to guide a subsequent return or signal that location to hive mates.  With such an amazing mechanism to guide bees between important locations, why should they use any other navigational strategy?  The answer lies in the fact that path integration is an individual’s estimate of position and so, small errors will accumulate throughout the route.  Therefore, upon the completion of the path integration homeward trajectory, the bee may not be at the intended goal.  However, if a bee is familiar with a location, it can use terrestrial landmarks to guide its search and correct for any errors accrued during the path of integration process. 

This spring and summer when you observe the bees buzzing from flower to flower, know there is much more happening than meets the eye.


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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.


One Response

  1. Fantastic article! We work with Jackie and Kevin Woodcock when they do educational presentations at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge. We’ve learned so much from them! They will bring their bees and butterflies presentations to church, social groups etc. Jackie, you need to write a book!

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