May 13, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Honeybee Dance Wins Ovation

In the 1960s, Karl von Frisch announced the surprising discovery that scout honeybees announce detailed information to their hivemates about food sources with a “waggle dance”.  This information, conveyed via the dance’s vigor and angle, tells recruit bees what angle to fly relative to the sun, how far to go, and how good the food is.  By labeling the bees in the hive that watched the dance and monitoring which recruits showed up at test feeding stations, he made a convincing case for the dance being the mechanism of information transfer.  Some, however, were not convinced that the dance conveyed information; they argued that the recruit bees could have just picked up the scent or followed it back.  They disputed the dance-information theory because the observers seemed to take longer getting to the food source than expected.  Although “this Nobel Prize-winning discovery revealed the most sophisticated example of non-primate communication that we know of” and won von Frisch a Nobel prize, the waggle-dance theory has been a little controversial all these years because of the lack of a “quantitative description of how effectively recruits translate the code in the dance into flight to their destinations.”
    Now, European researchers publishing in Nature say,1 “Using harmonic radar to record the actual flight paths of recruited bees, we now provide that description” that confirms von Frisch’s theory.  They attached miniature radar transponders to the recruit bees and were able to monitor their flights with harmonic radar.  Sure enough, the recruits made a bee-line to the food source.  Delays were caused near the food source as the bees made a series of search flights near the destination; i.e., once in the vicinity, they switched to reliance on visual cues and scent to pinpoint the target.  Another experiment released recruits 250m away from the hive where they had watched the dance.  Scientists observed the bees fly, not to the food source, but exactly in the direction predicted by the waggle dance.  “This result adds weight to von Frisch’s original theory,” concludes a press release from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, “and allows alternative hypotheses about bee behaviour to be firmly discounted.”
    See also the 02/15/2005 entry, “Honeybees fly with mental maps” and the 05/31/2001 entry, “Honeybees measure the scenery, not the mileage.”  The BBC News also reported on this story.


1Riley et al., “The flight paths of honeybees recruited by the waggle dance,” Nature 435, 205-207 (12 May 2005) | doi: 10.1038/nature03526.

This confirmation will add satisfaction to your viewing of the Moody Science film that demonstrates von Frisch’s experiments, a classic named City of the Bees.  The segment is also included in the anthology Wonders of God’s Creation.  The “language of the bees” via the dance is a great story, all the more wonderful because it is true: 2-good 2-bee 4-gotten.

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Categories: Terrestrial Zoology

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