The Bee Dance

How bees use dancing to communicate.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science ) -- James Nieh, a professor at the University of California, San Diego says, “I study all different kinds of social bees because you really need to look at social bees to study their communication. I look at honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees.”

“Honeybees have this amazing ability to communicate, and it's one of the reasons why I became a biologist, because I discovered as an undergraduate that they could communicate using a waggle dance,” said Nieh.

“So a bee that dances inside the nest, let's say she goes out to find a good food source. She'll find that flower, and if it's rewarding enough, she'll come back, and she'll do this dance that almost looks like a figure 8 of a bee dancing back and forth and then waggling her butt, if you will, her abdomen. And that waggling is key because the angle at which she's waggling and the duration of time she spends doing it actually tells bees where to go to find food,” said Nieh.

According to Nieh, “They can tell each other where to go, how far away to fly, and what distance to go to actually find the food source. Basically, the longer she spends shaking or waggling, the further away the food source is.”

“So another amazing part of this communication system, which hasn't been studied as clearly, is the fact that bees can actually use sound in some ways. They can generate sounds during the waggle dance, but the primary way they use sound is they sense through vibrations. So they're not hearing the way that we hear, but they can feel these vibrations,” said Nieh.

“So, we discovered some time ago that bees can use this vibrational signal called the stop signal. And what happens is that a bee will go up to another bee. Let's say I'm another bee dancing. She will butt her head against that dancer and cause that dancer to momentarily freeze. People have known that for a long time. But what we found is that it actually inhibits her dancing,” said Nieh.

“Now why would bees do this? It turns out that if something dangerous is at the food source -- let's say they've been attacked by a spider or a wasp -- essentially, she should stop dancing, stop trying to tell her nest mates to go somewhere that's bad,” said Nieh.

“I hope that people take advantage of resources, go online, and realize that there are many more species than just honeybees. In fact, there's an amazing diversity of bees. When we think about the flowerbeds that we enjoy, or we go to a florist or go to a wedding, we see all these amazing flowers. The story of these flowers, of all these plants, is integrally tied with the evolution of bees,” concluded Nieh.

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Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.