- Published: 12 March 2009
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Darlene Neville, age 11, of St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, for her question:
What does the honeybee dance mean?
We ordinary folk dance when we're happy to show our good spirits. Ballet dancers and other trained dancers can express moods and emotions and even pantomime stories without words. We do not know whether bees have understandable emotions, or wish to express them. But we do know that the busy buzzers have well organized systems of communication. This, without a doubt, is the purpose and meaning of the honeybee's dance.
Every little honeybee knows her chores, and work in the busy hive is organized down to the last detail. This often calls for teamwork and the relaying of information. We know that these remarkable insects have various methods of communicating with each other. The most marvelous of these is the honeybee dance. It is a pantomime, performed when a bee finds a supply of flowery nectar and returns to the hive. Beekeepers of the past assumed that she danced for joy, spreading the news that sweet nectar was available somewhere outside.
In recent years, scientists have proved that there is much more to this in the honeybee dance. Early in the morning, lone scouts set forth to patrol the neighborhood for likely supplies of nectar. They may find friendly flowers a few yards from the hive or range as far as three miles from home. When a scout returns home, she performs her elaborate dance on a honeycomb. Worker bees crowd around to watch because the pantomime indicate the precise distance and direction of the nectar. Most of them already know the type of flower because the scout gives out samples of nectar when she comes through the door.
The hive is dark and the nectar is out there in the sunshine. The dance uses an astonishing system to translate the angle of the sun into terms of gravity. A key point of the waggle pattern, performed on the upright comb, gives a line that extends to the angle of the sun outdoors in the sky. The watching bees now know the type of flowers and the direction to take to find them.
This distance of the treasure is far more complicated. Different patterns are used to indicate far and near. When the supply is merely six feet away, the dancer paces a wavy line, then a straight line and repeats the waves. The direction angle crosses the straight lines between the wavy waggles. A dance of small circles means that the treasure is ten yards away. Larger circles mean distances up to 50 yards. For average distances, the dancing bee repeats and repeats a figure of eight. The figure is angled so that a line across the thin waist points an angle to the location of the sun in the sky.
Tail wagging, head bobbing, left and right turns, different speeds and numerous other pantomimes are used to give more details about the flowery nectar supply. When the worker bees get the picture, they take off in the right direction to the right distance. They fill their tiny tummies with syrupy nectar, stuff their baskets with pollen and make a bee line back to the hive with the groceries.