I don’t know if you know this, but honey bees do a ‘waggle dance’. An actual dance. Called the ‘waggle dance’. The first time I learnt about this, I found it pretty amazing, and to be honest I still do. The dance has a communicative purpose, being used to indicate the location of a food source – an impressive (and in fact Nobel Prize-winning) discovery by Karl von Frisch (1967)1. It’s not just me that thinks it’s amazing either: Riley et al. (2005) describe it as the ‘most sophisticated example of non-primate communication that we know of’2.
When a foraging bee has discovered a new source of food, it is able to direct other members of the colony to it by performing a particular ‘waggle dance’3. Put simply, the angle of the dance relative to the vertical honey comb indicates the direction of the food relative to the sun, and the duration of the dance indicates distance3 (see Fig. 1). Dancing bees have received much attention since von Frisch’s original discovery, and a number of experiments have been performed that elucidate the mechanisms underlying this behaviour. For example, Riley et al. captured bees which were exiting a hive, and repositioned them2. These bees travelled to the location which would have contained the food source had they not been geographically displaced, showing that they really were using the directional information and not something else, like odour cues2. (Interestingly, however, it does look like bees rely on visual or odour signals when they get close to the food source)2,3. In addition, further research suggests that the ‘liveliness’ of the dance can indicate the ‘profitability’ of the food source…4.
So why am I telling you this? Well, I personally think it demonstrates the elegance and complexity of a bee hive; the dance is a sophisticated mechanism of communication, and one which has inspired years of research. The loss of any organism from this planet – especially as a consequence of human activity – is cause for concern, but the loss of the honey bee would be especially painful. Yet, this is what appears to be happening: the use of pesticides, land use change, and crop monocultures have all put us at risk of a so-called ‘beemageddon’5. Indeed, I’m sure you’ve all heard about the ‘disappearing bees’. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) – where a whole bee colony leaves the hive – is now a prevalent problem, especially in the U.S.6. From a selfish point of view, this is extremely worrying for us, since one third of our food resources depend on bee-pollination7. So what can we do? Well, one of the biggest threats to bees at the moment seems to be the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide used on crops such as oil seed rape8,9. Worryingly, the EU ban on neonicotinoids was lifted for UK farmers last year, despite public pressure to maintain it9. At the time, a petition was set up to keep the ban in place (see), which was signed by in excess of 500,000 people9. Therefore, signing petitions like this, as well as raising awareness about the importance of bees in the ecosystem, seems like a good place to start. Even though the ban was lifted, the story certainly got a lot of media coverage…and waggle dancing bees surely deserve that at least.
- von Frisch, K. (1967). The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 566 pp.
- Riley et al. (2005). The flight paths of honeybees recruited by the waggle dance. Nature 435(7039) pp. 205-207.
- Dyer, F.C. (2002). The biology of the dance language. Annual Review of Entomology 47(1) pp. 917-949.
- Seeley, T.D., Mikheyev, A.S. Pagano, G.J. (2000). Dancing bees tune both duration and rate of waggle-run production in relation to nectar-source profitability. Journal of Comparative Physiology A 186(9) pp. 813-819.
- Markham, D. (2015). The death of bees, in a nutshell: 6-minute video explores colony collapse disorder. Retrieved from http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/death-of-bees-animated-video-colony-collapse-disorder.html on 11/12/15.
- Honey Bee Hive (HBH) (2015). Colony collapse disorder – CCD. Retrieved from http://www.honeybeehive.co.uk/beekeeping/pests-diseases/colony-collapse-disorder-ccd/ on 11/12/15.
- Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). (n.d.). Save our bees. Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/animals/bees.aspon 11/12/15.
- Budge et al. (2015). Evidence for pollinator cost and farming benefits of neonicotinoid seed coatings on oilseed rape. Scientific Reports 5 doi: 10.1038/srep12574.
- Carrington, D. (2015). UK suspends ban on pesticides linked to serious harm in bees. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/23/uk-suspends-ban-pesticides-linked-serious-harm-bees on 11/12/15.