Bee Speak and Shimmy

As you probably learned at a very young age, honey bees adhere to a strict and regimented social order.

At the top, the queen. In the middle, manning the hive, are the worker bees. Occupying the lowliest rank are the drones, who exist, stinger-less, almost solely to mate with the queen.

The life of worker bees is highly (and surprisingly) complex. Their duties include cleaning and guarding the hive and foraging for nectar-rich flowers. Foraging is no small task, given that there are thousands of plants in the universe — and that nectar is the only source of energy in a honey bee’s diet. Considering all the energy it takes to forage, a bee must be certain that the amount of nectar to be delivered to the hive is worth the energy expenditure it’ll take to retrieve it. A queen bee needs to identify the best flowers and alert the rest of her hive about the location of the goldmine as soon as possible.

So how do they do it?

A very elaborate dance, as it turns out. Doing the “waggle dance,” honey bees move in a particular figure-eight formation in order to communicate to other bees where a nectar bounty is located. First, worker bees move at an angle that indicates the direction the flowers are in (relative to the location of the sun). Second, they wiggle their abdomen sat a particular speed and duration; this conveys to hive-mates the distance they’ll need to travel (one second of wiggling is equal to roughly a thousand meters). And third — since they’ll have already collected some of the pollen — they share its unique scent so the other bees can zero in and find it in the field.

This dance discovery is credited to the late Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology at the University of Munich. He and his students closely studied the micro-movements of bees in a lab, with forager bees painted a distinct color to aid observation. His groundbreaking findings earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1973.

Some critics of von Frisch believe the dance exists, but that bees use it primarily to share the scent of nearby nectar-producing flora — and that it doesn’t really transmit much information about direction or distance. Researchers will likely spend many more years trying to decipher this elaborate bee-to-bee communication mode.

Whether or not von Frisch’s descriptions of waggling are exactly correct, the honey bee dance should give you something to consider next time you try to foxtrot or box step — or gather intel from someone else who is.

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