Dance of the Bees: Universal Understanding

The most famous dancers in nature are honeybees, whose “waggle dance” tells hive-mates where to find food. But although the basics of the dance are the same for honeybees the world over (more on this below), different species seem to have different dance dialects, as it were. This evening scientists are reporting that Asian bees can understand the dance of European bees, and vice versa.

Honeybees have three basic dance moves, depending where the food they just found is located. If it’s close to the hive, the forager dances in little circles, clockwise and counterclockwise. Although the dance conveys no information about the direction to the food, the message “close by” (usually, closer than 150 feet away) is apparently sufficient. If the food is about 150 to 450 feet away, the forager does a “sickle dance,” tracing the shape of a crescent. For food more than 450 feet away, the bee does the famous waggle, which is the most sophisticated and complicated—especially when you consider that bee brains are, shall we say, modest. It conveys information about both distance and direction. The bee runs straight ahead, loops around in a semicircle back to where she started, dashes straight ahe ad again, then loops around in the opposite direction, making a figure-eight circuit. The length of the straight portion indicates distance, while the angle of the line represents the angle to the flowers from the sun.

Scientists have now used video cameras to confirm that Asian honeybees (Apis cerana cerana) and European honeybees (Apis mellifera ligustica) "have significantly different dance dialects, even when made to forage in identical environments," Shenglu Chen of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, and colleagues report in the journal PLoS One. The difference lies in how far the bees run during the straight portion of the waggle dance: the Asian bees run farther to convey a given distance than European bees do. Yet “when reared in the same colony, these two species are able to communicate with each other,” the scientists report, even though the sub-species diverged from one another (evolutionarily) 30 to 50 million years ago.

You can find fascinating clips of an Asian queen laying an egg, with European workers, around her, here. Others show Asian bees (with dark midsections)following the dance of European foragers and European and Asian bees following the dance of an Asian forager.