Bee Research News: More on the Waggle dance
As most beekeepers will know, Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize for his research into the waggle dance of the honey bee which led him to conclude that bees danced in order to inform their sisters and half-sisters of the direction and distance to a new food source.1
What many won’t know, and I was among them until recently, was that this dance language is believed by the majority of scientists in the field of animal communications to be the most sophisticated form of information transfer among non-primates; the primates being lemurs, monkeys and apes, including Man.
Von Frisch’s interpretation of the waggle dance wasn’t accepted by everyone, and although as time has gone by the detractors have tended to fall by the wayside, there are still a few who don’t accept his interpretation of the meaning of the dance. The principal fact that the non-believers cite in defence of their position is that the time taken by bees to find a new source after they have observed a dance is on average significantly longer than the expected time taken to find it based on flight speed and distance between the hive and the source. New research reported in Nature of 12th May of this year sheds more light on this controversy.2
A collaborative grouping of scientists at Rothamsted Research, the Free University of Berlin and the University of Greenwich made use of sophisticated radar tracking technology to see where bees go after their first observation of the dance of a worker returning from a feeder containing an odourless and colourless sugar solution source. By tracking bees carrying tiny radar transponders weighing just a few milligrams they discovered the following:
- All bees after seeing the dance left the hive in the general direction of the source.
- When necessary, their actual direction of flight through the air was adjusted for wind drift.
- Only a small minority of bees actually found the source at the first attempt. Those that didn’t generally gave up fairly quickly and returned to the hive, often having come within a few metres of the feeder.
The average of all the flight paths terminated very close to the feeder (within 6 metres with a 200 metre hive-feeder distance.
The scientists included a number of stringent controls in their experiments and their results appear to be robust.
So what does this tell us about bees, and was von Frisch correct? Well, once again a new piece of research supports the view that the waggle dance indeed provides bees with information on the direction and distance to a new food source. But, the dance doesn’t provide a perfect guide as most bees don’t find the source first time. Of course one must remember that in a natural situation the dance doesn’t have to be perfect because, once close, bees can use other clues such as scents and the activities of other bees in the vicinity to home in on the target. But in the absence of these other clues, the key observation made was that the average flight is pretty accurate. And, very importantly, the average works well for a species that uses force of numbers to achieve most things. It means that some bees will find the source, and those few will go back and dance. Others will see the dance for a second or third time, and have further tries, and the law of averages means that if they make enough attempts they will eventually be successful. It is even possible, but not proven as far as I am aware, that further viewings of the dance may enable bees to refine their “fix” of the target. But, what is certain is that the few who are successful in locating the source will swell the numbers of dancers and this will in turn swell the numbers of new recruits. Then the law of averages and the strength in numbers of the honey bee colony will combine to create a rapidly expanding force of bees able to work the source.
Was von Frisch correct? This research says he was. We now know that with the information gleaned from the waggle dance ‘Miss Average’ bee comes very close to the target, but most bees do not actually find the food source the first time. This explains why on average it takes bees longer than the calculated direct journey times would suggest to find the source. The “non-believers” are beginning to resemble “flat-earthers”.
1. Von Frisch, K., The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967.
2. Riley, J.R., Greggers, U., Smith A.D., Reynolds, D. R., and Menzel, R., (2005) The flight paths af honeybees recruited by the waggle dance. Nature 435,205-207.
By Alan Teale. Scottish Beekeeper Aug 2005 courtesy of BEES
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