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The Dance of the Honeybees: Incomparable

The honeybee waggle dance

Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) dedicated his life to unravelling many of the mysteries of the honeybee. He was the first researcher to decipher the purposeful and endearing dancing of bees. In 1972 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his excellence.

The waggle dance is one of the most extraordinary forms of communication in the entire animal kingdom.

This dance conveys precise information about the food’s location, including its direction and the distance from the hive – as far as 8 miles. In his research, von Frisch determined that workers assess critical fragments of information from each of the dance’s components, including the duration of waggling and buzzing; the length of the straight run, in comb cell diameters; the number of unit circuits per dance; and the average distance of the dances from the hive entrance.

The waggle dance follows a nearly figure-eight shape, but with a straight (bee)line connecting the two semicircles. The scout runs along a narrow semicircle, making sharp turns, and then beelines straight back to her starting point. She then performs the same moves in the opposite direction. The dance is elaborate, with the bee waggling her abdomen in precise, intricate steps. At each turn she vigorously shakes her body: the side to side waggle occurs about 13 to 15 times a second and gives off a buzzing sound as her muscles and skeleton vibrate.

At the end of a complete dance, the scout will stop and share nectar with other workers, who extend their antennae to smell the dancer. Some new followers even squeak, causing the dancer to stop midstream and feed them a droplet of nectar.

Dance tempo and beeline length indicate distance from the hive to the flowers. That is, followers assess the distance by measuring the number of circuits per 15 seconds and the amount of time spent waggling and buzzing on the straight run. A slow dance tempo and long straight run communicate that the distance is greater. It does not convey exact distance, but informs the other bees of the amount of energy needed to find the new resource. This translates into the amount of honey each forager must eat before leaving the hive. The waggle dance can also inform foragers about new sources of water, tree resin and pollen.

Fascinatingly, the waggle dance – mostly performed in the dark and on the vertical face of the comb – somehow conveys the horizontal direction to the food source.

Interested in knowing more about other honeybee dances or keeping honeybees? Contact  Bee Friendly Gardens: HalterBrothers@gmail.com