Why do bees dance?

Did you know that bees communicate by dancing? Through their movements in flight, they indicate to their peers the distance and direction of food sources. Learn in this article how this fascinating animal communication system works.

They say that if bees become extinct, humans will have very little time left. This is probably partly true (maybe a bit exaggerated), but the good news is that bees as a whole are not yet extinct. A particular species Apis mellifera, the domestic bee that provides us with honey, is increasingly abundant.

Why do bees dance?

In bee society, as in human society, communication is very important. Bees, like ants and other social insects, use pheromones to establish close communication between individuals. However, some messages are better conveyed another way: through dance. Bees communicate by dancing, but this dance is not a series of random movements, but a thoughtful and carefully balanced performance.

The job of foraging bees, called hive scouts by entomologists, is to find food and inform others about their discoveries. After discovering a rich source of nectar or pollen, the foraging bee returns to the hive and performs a very special dance.

How do bees dance?

One of the most extensive studies in this field was conducted by Michigan State University entomologist Fred C. Dyer more than 20 years ago. This provides compelling evidence for how bees encode information through dance.

The forager performs a series of movements in the shape of an eight, with a phase considered decisive that is called "tremor phase". At this moment, the bee vibrates its body and moves its wings at a speed that encodes the distance to the food. Furthermore, the angle at which the bee performs this part of the dance with respect to the vertical indicates with surprising Precise the direction of the food with respect to the sun.

The fact that bees communicate by dancing is a perfect example of how animals can communicate complex information effectively and accurately. The ability of bees to provide accurate data on the location and quality of food sources is critical to the survival and success of the hive.

bees communicate by dancing

Not all bees communicate by dancing

Most studies have focused on the domestic bee, Apis mellifera, a bee that becomes increasingly abundant. But this is only one side of the coin, on the other hand there are wild bees, many of which are threatened by the same species of domestic bee, which has spread to all continents except the Far South of the planet and competes fiercely for resources. same resources.

In Spain there are more than 1.100 species of bees, all of them important and many of them in danger of extinction. From the country's high mountains to the country's sunny coasts, these insects contribute significantly, although not exclusively, to pollination, an ecosystem service essential for the conservation of many plant species.

Not all wild bees dance. Insects that display social behavior, such as bumblebees of the genus Bombus, yes they do, although in a less subtle way. But most Spanish species are solitary. In these independent species, each bee works individually to obtain food and does not need to inform others about the location of the food source.

Are they born knowing how to dance or do they learn?

Bees communicate by dancing, but although this may seem like genetically transmitted instinctive behavior, it also involves an element of social learning.

According to recent research by researcher Shihao Dong of the University of California, San Diego, young bees that do not have the opportunity to see other bees dance show significant deficits in performing appropriate dances and jumps.

However, young bees who watched experienced dancers learned to determine location (direction and distance) more accurately and the quality of resources more effectively. This phenomenon reflects the importance of social learning in the evolution and effectiveness of bees' foraging strategies.

The study by Dong and colleagues published in the prestigious journal Science highlights that bees, despite their small size, have a remarkable capacity for learning and adaptation, highlighting the complexity of their social behavior and communication.

It's more than a dance

bees communicate by dancing

The bee dance is a complex communication network that uses multiple sensory systems to interpret and transmit information.

They depend on vision to orient themselves in relation to the sun and read the dances of their companions. They use balance to feel gravity and determine angles to verticals. The vibrations and sounds created by the dancing bees are important elements that complement the visual information.

Acoustic communication through vibrations, complemented by tactile functions and of course pheromones, is also a way to improve communication in hives where light is limited.

The integration of these sensory systems with bee communication demonstrates intelligence and processing capabilities that challenge our traditional understanding of cognitive function in insects. Bees communicate by dancing and this is not only based on simple instincts, but they also process and transmit information in complex ways, using a combination of visual, tactile, auditory and chemical signals.

References:

  • Brockmann, A. et al. 2007. Central Projections of Sensory Systems Involved in Honey Bee Dance Language Communication. Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 70, 125-136. DOI: 10.1159/000102974
  • Donaldson-Matasci, M.C. et al. 2012. How habitat affects the benefits of communication in collectively foraging honey bees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 66, 583-592. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-011-1306-z
  • Dong, S. et al. 2023. Social signal learning of the waggle dance in honey bees. Science, 379, 1015-1018. DOI: 10.1126/science.ade1702
  • Dyer, F. 2002. The biology of the dance language. Annual review of entomology, 47, 917-949. DOI: 10.1146/ANNUREV.ENTO.47.091201.145306
  • Molina, C. et al. 2019. Field guide to the bees of Spain.

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