Bee Dances: Why Bees Waggle?

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A family with thousands of members in one house needs a good way to communicate. Bee dances are one of the ways the working members of a honey bee colony share information. Honey bee dance language remained a mystery for a long time. But now, we understand more about how bees use dances to become more efficient foragers.

Worker bees dance on wax comb.

Every beekeeper has watched foraging bees bringing nectar and pollen back to the hive. This is a lot of hard work and bees are efficient. How do they work smarter instead of harder? They use division of labor and dance communication.

Dance Language of Honey Bees

In the early 1900’s, Austrian researcher Karl Von Frisch (The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees) studied sensory perceptions of honey bees (Apis mellifera) and uncovered many interesting bee facts.

His work proved that honey bee dance was a means of communication regarding the location of food sources. He received a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work.

Honey bee dance language communicates location of food image.

3 Types of Bee Dances

The most well known bee dances are directed toward other worker bees who are field foragers. When a worker finds a great food source, she returns to the hive with a small sample of nectar.

The worker bees dance on the surface of the comb and share samples of the nectar with others. These recruits explore the odor and taste using their remarkable bee antennae.

Dancers use movement to tell the direction of the food source and/or distance -using 3 major dance movements.

  • round dance (circle dance)
  • waggle dance (wag tail dance)
  • sickle dance
Diagram of the honey bee round dance that tells foragers food is close.

Round Dance

A rich food source from flowers near the hive will result in a “circle or round dance”. The dancer will share nectar samples to interested observers.

The round dance does not tell the bees which direction to fly. It simply alerts the bees to food that is not far away.

Because the food source is close to the hive (within 50 meters), foragers use their senses to locate it. And, honey bees have a special way of seeing flowers that helps them find food.

A good nectar source will impress many foraging bees. A large number of bees dancing for the same prime food location is common.

When the blooms of a particular type start to dwindle, the bees will switch to a more attractive source. Again, they will “hit the dance floor” to show their love for the new nectar source.

Diagram of the honey bee waggle dance the length of the waggle runs tells how far to food.

Waggle Dance

The most well known of the honey bee dances is the “waggle dance“. It is fun to say and even funnier to watch in the hive. The lucky beekeeper will see this behavior during hive inspections if you look closely.

Bees performing the waggle dance are communicating direction information and approximate distance to a food source. 

This is important because the new recruits will not only know which direction to fly but also how long it may take to get there.

The waggle dance is used for food sources that are more than 150 meters away from the hive. The more attractive the food source – the more excited the bee dancer moves. 

Therefore, the intense vigor of the waggling and that of the return phase is designed to attract more recruits than a weak attempt.

Diagram of how bees communicate using the bee dance inside the hive using the position of the sun.

The waggle run in the middle is a very important part of this bee dance. Inside the dark hive, straight up is considered the direction of the sun.

The middle run is performed at the same angle away from straight up as the food source is from the sun.

The duration of the waggle run is also believed to be related to the distance from the hive. A dance with a long middle run is farther from the colony than a short one.

Transitional Sickle Bee Dance

There is also a bee dance called the “sickle dance” that may is sometimes used to denote food sources that are more than 50 meters from the hive but under 150 meters. It is similar to the waggle dance but without the waggle in the middle.

How do Bees Dance?

Okay, they can wiggle around but do bees really dance? Yes, in a manner of speaking they do. The honey bee is quite agile as evidenced by her segmented body parts – even when she is not on the dance floor. 

The membrane along the bee’s back is thicker than the one along its belly. This allows the bees to curl their abdomen but they can not do back-bends.

Whether dancing or bending to when honey bees sting in defense, they can move as needed. Beyond wiggling of the body, dancers may also buzz and beat their wings in odd patterns.

We can see the movement but not the thoracic vibrations on the honeycomb surface. This is just another reason that honeycomb is so important to the colony. It is their dance floor.

The Bee Dance Controversy

In spite of the ground breaking research by Dr. Frisch, not everyone agreed on the actual level of communication provided by bee dances. Some people felt that dance played a role but perhaps not to the extent Dr. Frisch believed.

Of course, honey bees do not rely solely on bee dances. Using their strong sense of smell, they detect floral odors on the bodies of dancers to aid in locating the source.

It is also important to note that dances are not only used to locate food. Waggle dancing can be used to direct scout bees to a possible new nest site. This type of scouting takes place in the weeks before a swarm leaves the hive.

More recently, a study using radar to track flying bees seems to confirm Dr. Frisch’s work on the waggle dance. So there you go, another thing for beekeepers to argue about – imagine that.


What are the 3 types of bee dances?

The two most common bee dances are the round dance and the waggle or wag-tail dance. Sometimes a 3rd dance is performed called a transitional that is between the other two.

What does it mean when a bee dances?

In most cases, a bee dances to share information with other bees in the hive about a good food location.

What is the difference between the bee round and waggle dance?

The round bee dance communicates the direction of a food source. The waggle dance adds a waggling diagonal movement that also indicates distance to a food source.

Final Thoughts

Communication is vital for insects whose lives rely on social behavior. The ultimate goal of the colony is survival. The colony relies on teamwork and communication to allow bees to collect needed resources.

The movements involved in bee dances remains similar across different honey bee species – with only minor differences. Is it more amazing that the dancer is communicating in this way, or that the watcher is able to interpret the meaning?