Why Do Bees Dance?

Honey bees are unique creatures, not only for their production of honey, propolis, and royal jelly, but their methods of communication are unique to the Apis genus. 

Why do bees dance?

Bees dance as a form of communication. The “waggle dance” is a specific way of communicating to as many nearby bees as possible, and announcing an important message: there’s a good food source nearby. 

How many types of dances are there?

Altogether there are four dances; two for foraging and two for encouraging assistance from other bees. 

The two dances that honey bees perform for foraging include the infamous waggle dance and a round dance, but studies seem to argue that the round dance is simply another form of the waggle dance. These dances aren’t just performed to inform other workers that food is nearby; they can tell the foragers exactly where these sources are and the quality of the nectar or pollen. 

The third dance is to encourage receiver bees to take nectar from the workers and begin the process of reducing the water content. This is known as a “tremble” dance. The fourth dance is a grooming dance, and is a way of worker bees asking for help from their nestmates to remove debris from their bodies.

honey bees in hive
Mikhail Abramov@123rf.com

So how does it work? 

The compound eyes on bees allow them to perceive ambient light with great precision. They fly during the day not only because they require the warmth to fly, but also to be able to navigate using the sun. The waggle dance is a figure of eight loop, sometimes completed over a hundred times as the bee runs around the comb. When she passes through the center of the loop, she will waggle back and forth, turning left and right. The forager will perform this dance at a specific angle, indicating the direction to the food source in relation to the sun. For instance, if the worker dances at a 90° angle to the right, this indicates that the foraging location is 90 degrees to the right of the sun. The length of time spent waggling in the center also indicates the distance that the bees must travel to get to the location. Studies have found that when the location is far from the hive and the forager has taken some time to return, the bee performing the waggle dance will change the angle to compensate for the change in location of the sun. The precision of bees to determine distance and direction is phenomenal, but without such abilities forager bees would not be able to travel so far from the hive. 

The round dance seems to be a modified waggle dance, where the bee simply runs around in circles on the comb, occasionally alternating from left to right. This dance is thought to relay information about food sources close to the hive, typically less than fifty meters away. During the dance, the bee will also use acoustic signals to relay distance and direction to the nearby workers. Honey bees don’t necessarily “hear” in the same way that humans do, but they do detect airborne sound waves in their antennae, which is used in combination with the dance to emit information. 

The waggle dance and round dance is typically used for seeking out the location of pollen and nectar-heavy plants, but it can also be used to indicate sources of water or a new nesting location if the hive decides to abscond or split. 

Within a hive, forager bees are tasked with heading out to seek pollen and nectar while receiver bees will, along with various other duties, retrieve the goods from the returning foragers. They will store the pollen in cells fairly soon after arrival but nectar needs the water content reduced in order to make it into honey, which they do so by passing from mouth to mouth and fanning cells full of nectar with their wings to evaporate the water. The “tremble dance” is a behavior exhibited by forager bees, which is a call to recruit more receiver bees to attend to returning foragers. It is described as being similar to that of a waggle dance, using the circular motions and buzzing wings to attract the attention of other bees. 

The final dance is also known as a “shaking dance”, as the bees will shiver and shake to bring attention to themselves when they are in need of grooming. Smoke particles, chalk, and any other debris that sticks to their bodies can sometimes be hard to remove, so the bees will work to clean one another up. The varroa mite is a huge killer of honey bee populations, and the grooming dance is seen far more often when mites are present in the hive, as the bee will have difficulty removing it from her own body. Honey bees tend to be very clean and hygienic, grooming one another often and clearing out waste from the hive. This allows them to keep disease and pests at a minimum. 

Who discovered that bees dance?

German-Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch is credited with studying what exactly the dances of bees were for, and published his findings in a book in 1927. Frisch’s series of experiments over the years paved the way towards a better understanding of bee’s behaviour, but he was not the one to discover that bees dance. No specific individual could possibly be attributed to the discovery of the dances, especially since the practice of beekeeping is thousands of years old and spans many cultures. Many ancient texts mention the dancing of bees, but no one truly understood the purpose of these dances until Frisch studied them closely. 

Is it easy to spot bees dancing?

Finding a honey bee performing a waggle dance on a frame isn’t difficult; she’ll be vibrating back and forth and running in small circles. When several bees have foraged from the same food source, more than one bee may do a waggle dance indicating the same location. It is important to note that waggle dances are not constantly occurring in the hive; if you happen to spot a waggle dance while pulling a frame you’re in luck! Although they might be crawling with honey bees and all sorts of hive activities going on, if a waggle dance is occurring you’re likely to spot the vibrating bee, and she’ll often have a crowd of spectators taking in the information. 

Do bees communicate in any other way?

While performing a waggle dance, honey bees will also emit sounds and chemical signals to attract the attention of other bees. Spectator bees also don’t necessarily have to observe the dance—sometimes the smell of the pollen or nectar stuck to the bee alone is enough to inform them of what sort of flowers the dancer has visited, and they can often use their sense of smell to find these food sources provided they’re not far from the hive. Interestingly, witnessing a waggle dance rarely results in bees seeking out that particular food source, but it has been found to encourage bees to go out and forage. In this sense, the waggle dance may be a method in which to inform workers that there is good food nearby, and the precise location is secondary information. 

For other forms of communication, pheromones are the most effective method of sending a message across. Queen pheromones are powerful enough to inhibit the ovaries of workers to prevent them from laying eggs, but other types of pheromones can be used to activate defense when the hive is under attack, as a chemical call to arms. 

Another pheromone is produced in the Nasonov gland of honey bees, which help workers find their way home or to sources of food and water. The bees emit these pheromones from the tip of their abdomen, so they lean forward, stick their bums in the air, and fan their wings to help spread the pheromones out. Seeing a bunch of bee bums sticking upwards can look intimidating, as though the bees are giving a warning that you are staring at the business end of the bee, but you can be safe in the knowledge that they are not exhibiting aggression.