Honey Bee Dance Language Explained

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Why do Bees Dance?

A honey bee colony must make and store pounds of honey before Winter cold arrives. This means visiting millions of flowers to collect nectar and pollen. The way bees communicate the location of food sources, is one of the most interesting facts about bee life . A major form of bee communication, the honey bee dance language remained a mystery for a long time. But now we know how bees use dance to share information and become efficient foragers.

picture of bees on comb involved in honey bee dance communication

Have you ever seen a honey bee dance?  If you are a beekeeper you may see bee dances happening while inspecting your hives.

Honey bee dances have been a source of fascination for beekeepers and insect scientists for many years.

Early bee researchers noticed some of the bees doing strange movements on the honeycomb inside the hive. The bees were doing as a from of communication but early beekeepers had no idea what it meant.

Significance of Bee Dance

In the early 1900’s, Austrian researcher Karl Von Frisch studied sensory perceptions of honey bees.

His work proved that the repetitive dance moves of bees in the hive had meaning. The honey bee dance was a means of communication regarding the location of food sources.

Von Frisch published his findings in his bookThe Dancing Bees . He received a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work with honey bee dances.

picture of dancing honey bee with pollen inside hive

Bee Dance Language Enhances Survival

The ultimate goal of the honey bee colony is survival.  As a social organism, the colony relies on teamwork and communication to procure needed resources.

Without a good supply of food, a bee colony has no hope of growth or sustainability.  Many people think that bees collect honey but they do not.

Worker bees fly from the hive to collect nectar a sweet liquid produced by many blooming plants. Back inside the hive, bees transform the nectar into honey.

Each season – A time will come when there will be no blooms and no nectar available to collect. The bee colony must store enough food to survive until Spring blossoms.

Efficient nectar gathering is essential to the survival of a honey bee colony. Much time and energy would be wasted if each bee had to find a great food source on their own.

Honey bee dances are a fast way to communicate prime foraging locations. Time is money – I mean honey – to the bees.  By recruiting others to good forage, the colony is making the most of each food source.

How do Bees Dance?

The honey bee is quite agile even when she is not on the dance floor.  A  study from Chinese researchers has given us a better understanding of the mechanics of honeybee movement.

The inter-segmental membrane (the membrane that connects the plates on the bee’s back and belly) was studied.

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 perform a sting in defense of the hive, these bees can move as needed.

Beyond wiggling of the body, dancers may also buzz and beat their wings in odd patterns.

Honey Bee Dance Types

There are many little intricate movements that bees use to communicate while inside the hive. However, the most well known honey bee dances are directed toward worker bees who are field foragers.

Bee Dances Offer 2 Types of Information

  1. direction
  2. distance

When a worker finds a great food  source, she will return to the hive with a small sample of nectar. The worker bee will dance on the surface of the comb and share samples of the nectar with others.

Honey bee dancers use movement to tell the direction and/or distance to the food source. Is it more amazing that the dancer is communicating in this way, or that the watcher is able to interpret the meaning?

Most Common Bee Forager Dances

  • round dance (circle dance)
  • waggle dance (wag tail dance)
diagram of the honey bee round dance

Honey Bee 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), the bees will use their sense of smell and vision to look for the sweet blossoms.

As more field bees go out and find the nectar source, they too may return to the hive and dance.

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.

Transitional Sickle Dance of Bees

There is also a bee dance movement called the “sickle dance” that is 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.

diagram of the honey bee waggle dance

Honey Bee 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.

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

This is important because the new recruits will not only know when way 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. 

diagram of how bees communicate using dances

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 dancing bees. 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 dancing sisters to find food. Using their strong sense of smell, bees detect floral odors on the bodies of honey bee dancers to aid in locating the source.

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.

Final Thoughts About Honey Bee Dance Language

A honey bee colony is a large social organism. Thousands of individuals work together in a coordinated fashion that is almost magical.

Communication is key for this type of colony life. The honey bee dance language is only one way that bees worker together to meet the needs of the hive.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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2 Comments

  1. Phil Ershler says:

    Considering the (very unscientific observations) the I have made through the observation window on my top board hive, I not sure that there is ever ONE specific “dance floor”. I notice my girls performing very characteristic waggle dance moves in multiple places on multiple combs. It often seems to occur whenever there is a significant number of workers in a group surrounding the dance performance. When the weather improves, I am going to attempt to record and quantify my observations. Thanks

  2. I agree that the “dance floor” must change position over time. I would guess ( and that’s all I can do) that it may be in relation to the location of the brood nest or perhaps just the current “busy” section where foragers tend to congregate? Good luck with your observations.

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