Decoding the Honey Bee’s “Waggle Dance”

On Exhibit posts

Bee hovers over a milk thistle flower.

Foraging honey bees use a complex pattern of vibrations to indicate the location of a food source to the hive’s worker bees.

Courtesy of Fir0002/Wikimedia Commons


Relying on sight, scent, and touch, honey bees navigate the world—and even dance to it.

Their antennae are highly sensitive to vibrations. They also have numerous receptors that respond to odors and other stimuli. Together, these keen senses may explain how worker bees are able to pick up and interpret the so-called “waggle dance,” which they use to share the location of food with fellow worker bees of the colony.

While the process is not completely understood, it goes a little something like this: a successful forager uses an elaborate dance pattern to indicate both the direction of food in relation to the Sun and its distance from the hive. The dancer adjusts the direction over time to account for the movement of the Sun, as do the foragers in the field.

 

Bee in flight carries pollen back to the hive.

Pollen brought back to the hive gives worker bees a sampling of the scent from a nectar source.

Courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons


The worker bees don’t actually see the waggle dance within the pitch-black hive, perhaps giving new meaning to the phrase “dancing in the dark.” Instead, the bees sense air vibrations through their antennae, which are held close to the dancing, waggling bee. “What they sense is the motion that’s created,” says Jerome G. Rozen, Jr., curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, who oversees one of the world’s largest collections of bee eggs, larvae, and pupae at the Museum. “They feel it.”

The dance is accompanied by an olfactory message, too: pollen brought back by the returning dancing bee or regurgitated nectar conveys the scent of the food at the forage site. Finally, the richness of the nectar source is indicated by the duration of the dance. The bees don’t exactly measure the length of the dance, but the longer the bee dances, the more foragers are recruited—essentially matching the workforce to the harvest at hand.

 

Learn more about the senses of honey bees and other insects in the special exhibition Our Senses: An Immersive Experience, which is free for Members.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

 

Tags: Bees