Astonishingly, honeybees possess one of the most complicated examples of nonhuman communication. They can tell each other where to find resources such as food, water, or nest sites with a physical “waggle dance.” This dance conveys the direction, distance and quality of a resource to the bee’s nestmates.
Key Details about waggle dance
- Essentially, the dancer points recruits in the correct direction and tells them how far to go by repeatedly circling around in a figure eight pattern centered around a waggle run, in which the bee waggles its abdomen as it moves forward. Dancers are pursued by potential recruits, bees that closely follow the dancer, to learn where to go to find the communicated resource.
- The waggle dancer gives the instructions, and the followers learn where they can find the indicated resource.
- Longer waggle runs communicate greater distances, and the waggle angle communicates direction. For higher-quality resources such as sweeter nectar, dancers repeat the waggle run more times and race back faster after each waggle run.
- This dance is difficult to produce. The dancer is not only running – covering about one body length per second – while trying to maintain the correct waggle angle and duration. It is also usually in total darkness, amid a crowd of jostling bees and on an irregular surface.
- Bees therefore can make three different types of mistakes: pointing in the wrong direction, signaling the wrong distance, or making more errors in performing the figure eight dance pattern – what researchers call disorder errors. The first two mistakes make it harder for recruits to find the location being communicated. Disorder error may make it harder for recruits to follow the dancer.
- Scientists knew that all bees of the species Apis mellifera begin to forage and dance only as they get older and that they also follow experienced dancers before they first attempt to dance.
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