Bee dances

Honey bees spend a lot of time exchanging nectar. When a bee returns from a foraging trip she will pass her load of nectar to another 'house' bee that will process the nectar and store it.

If a worker finds a good source of nectar, she will tell her sisters in the hive where it is, using a formalised communication language in the form of a dance, and then give some of the nectar to other workers who attend the dance.

The other workers are thus informed of the position of the source of nectar and its flavour and sugar content. They are then in a position to visit the source of nectar and bring more back to the hive. In this way a colony can recruit many bees to fetch nectar and pollen from a local source that provides rich pickings. As a result of the food sharing (trophallaxis) that occurs in a honey bee colony, all the bees in one colony will tend to have a similar odour.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular ways bees communicate is by the bee dance. The bees create a 'dance floor' on a patch of comb within the hive. This comb is left with minimal larvae or stores so its surface can vibrate if a bee shakes it.

Waggle dance

When a bee returns from a forage site that is a good source of food, she will go to the dance floor and perform a 'waggle' dance. In this dance she will shake her abdomen and align her body in a particular direction. She will then do a circle to the right and return to the same place and repeat the dance. She will then circle to the left and do the dance again until she has fully communicated her message. This dance will tell other bees who come to observe the dance, how far and in what direction the food can be found. It was not until the 1940s that the dance was understood when it was discovered that the direction to the vertical on the frame equates to the direction of flight relative to the sun and the intensity of the waggle relates to the distance to fly. The more vigorous the 'waggle' is the closer the source of food. The single dance gives both direction and distance from the hive.

Remember that all this is done in the dark inside the hive so the potential recruits have to touch the dancing bee to determine the direction and distance to travel. Research is still going on to understand the dance; while the interpretation of direction is fairly clear the measurement of distance by the bees is not fully understood. It may relate to the time of flight or the number of markers (such as trees) passed or the amount of energy required to get there. Whatever it is, it works for the bees and once a bee discovers a rich source of food it will only take a few minutes before others from the same hive arrive to take advantage of the food.

The moral to the tale is do not leave any honey or comb exposed when keeping bees, for once one bee finds it, soon after there will be many hundreds more trying to get to the honey!

There is some dispute about the exact mechanism that scout bees use to ensure that other bees find the source of food. Some say that the bees rely only on the dances to find the source whereas other believe that the original scout bee leaves the hive and then guide a group of followers to the source. The role of the waggle dance is to ensure that the followers are prepared (have enough food) for the flight and leave the hive in approximately the right direction to be able to follow a scent trail left by the scout bee. This is just one of many dances used by the bees to communicate information.

Round dance

If the food source is near to the hive then giving directional information is not so necessary and another dance is used, called the 'Round dance'. In this dance the forager will circle in one direction (say clockwise) and then reverse and circle in the opposite direction. This dance will go on for some time and is considered a very effective way to recruit followers. The outcome is usually many bees leaving the hive and circling about looking for the food source. The cross over from the round dance to the more complex dance to indicate a food source more distant seems to vary with the breed of honey bees. It is generally between 30 and 100 metres from the hive. Interestingly there is a third dance called the 'Sickle dance' which is used as a transition between the round and waggle dances.

DVAV dance

The dorsal ventral abdominal dance is performed by a worker whilst grasping onto another worker. It appears that this excites other foraging workers and encourages them to come to the dance floor to observe a foraging dance. The dance is also used on the queen. In this case it appears to prevent the queen from trying to destroy developing queen cells prior to swarming. It appears to excite the queen so that when the vibrations stop she is ready and willing to leave the hive with a swarm of bees.

Jostling and spasmodic dance

The jostling and spasmodic dances are performed by foragers and both seem to be used to encourage other foragers to come to the dance floor and 'observe' a dance about food resources. In the jostling dance a forager will return and knock into other bees causing a generalised disturbance. The spasmodic dance is also done by a returning forager. It involves waggling her abdomen but is short lived and is interspersed with unloading her crop of food.

Buzzing run dance

The buzzing run dance is also done by scout bees but in this case it is done just before a swarm leaves the hive. It disrupts the other bees in the hive and can be seen as a signal to drive the bees out to form a swarm.

Shaking dance

The shaking dance is done by bees that signal to other bees that they would like to be groomed. During the dance the bee bows her head and shakes her abdomen, Other bees are attracted and start to groom her, probably because there is some parasite causing some irritation.

Excerpt from the book: The bbka guide to beekeeping

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