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How bees interpret their "waggle dance" language in the dark

Honeybees live in a world we can barely imagine. Inside their pitch-black hives, these incredible insects rely on a secret language of movement to tell each other where all the best flowers are. Scientists long ago figured out the basics of this “waggle dance,” but there was one mystery buzzing around unanswered…how do the other bees understand it in the dark?

New research at the University of Edinburgh has cracked the code. It turns out bees have clever little “feelers” (their antennae) and brainpower that unlocks the mysteries hidden within the dance.

Honey bees and their waggle dance

Honeybees are vital for our ecosystem. As pollinators, they play a vital role in ensuring we have the food to sustain ourselves. Their work pollinating fruits, vegetables, and nuts isn’t just about having a colorful salad, it’s about the very foundation of our food security.

That’s why understanding how honeybees communicate is so critical. The recent discovery represents a major step in our ability to support these essential creatures. By understanding their communication, we can learn how to protect them better.

Sadly, honeybee populations face alarming threats: pesticides that disorient their navigation, pollution that masks the scents of flowers, and shrinking habitats that reduce the variety of plants they need to thrive. Each of these puts our food supply in jeopardy. Decoding the waggle dance brings us closer to identifying the impact of these threats and creating solutions.

The science of waggle dancing

Picture this: a scout bee returns from a successful foraging mission, bursting with sugary nectar. It can’t exactly shout, “Hey everyone, awesome wildflowers this way!” Instead, it performs a little dance on the honeycomb.

The angle of the bee’s body during the dance points directly towards the flowers, and the length of its little “waggle” run in the middle signals how far its buddies will have to fly.

It may look simple, but for other bees to follow these directions in the pitch-black hive, it requires some serious decoding skills.

Role of antennae in waggle dance

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh decided to crack this code, but they faced a problem: how do you see inside a beehive? The answer turned out to be high-tech.

Infrared cameras became their eyes in the darkness. These specialized tools allowed them to film bees in high-resolution, even when humans couldn’t see a thing.

The focus was the waggle dance – where a bee returning from a successful foraging trip shares the location of yummy flowers with the rest of the hive. The science world has known about the dance for a long time, but how other bees decode it in the pitch-black was a puzzle.

What the infrared footage revealed was revolutionary. It turns out, the other bees in the hive aren’t just watching the dance – they’re feeling it. They constantly tap the dancing bee with their antennae, subtly adjusting the angle of those antennae as the dancer moves. It’s like they’re using their antennae to draw an invisible map based on the dancer’s movements.

Tiny insect, giant calculations

To actually follow the dance instructions, bees don’t just use their touchy-feely antennae. They combine that information with their internal sense of gravity. Imagine having a compass built right into your head – that’s what’s happening inside these tiny insects!

Their brains, smaller than a grain of rice, perform complex calculations to figure out the exact distance and direction to that sweet patch of flowers. “This is particularly exciting because it unveils a remarkably elegant neural mechanism employed by bees to decipher complex information with minimal resources,” said PhD student Anna Hadjitofi, who was part of the research team.

Professor Barbara Webb added: “Understanding how the small brains of insects carry out such sophisticated calculations can help us design more compact and energy-efficient computers.” Think about the possibilities – the world of insects could inspire the next generation of super-smart, energy-saving technology.

Why all the buzz?

This discovery is more than just a fascinating peek into the insect world. Honeybees are in decline, and that decline has massive ripple effects for our food security and the overall balance of nature. The better we understand how bees find food and share vital information, the more tools we’ll have to support them and ensure their colonies thrive for years to come.

Beyond waggle dance

Honeybees are fascinating creatures with a complex social structure. Their communication goes far beyond the well-known waggle dance that tells hive mates where the best flowers are. Let’s dive into their other communication methods:

Round dance

When a bee finds food nearby (within about 50 meters), it does the round dance. This involves moving in short loops, switching between clockwise and counterclockwise. It tells other bees there’s food close by, but doesn’t give precise directions like the waggle dance.

Tremble dance

Imagine a forager bee returning to the hive loaded with nectar, but there’s a backlog. It might perform the tremble dance. This signals other foragers to slow down their collection and encourages more receiver bees to help unload the nectar.

Begging signal

This is also known as the “begging signal.” A bee delivers a short, sharp vibration to another bee. This can mean danger, bad weather, a depleted food source, or even overcrowding of foragers.


The queen bee releases pheromones, which are special scents that carry messages. These scents regulate behavior and development throughout the hive.

More buzzing

Bees use their wings to create buzzing noises for different reasons. Guard bees might buzz to warn off intruders. Piping sounds, another vibrational tone, help coordinate hive activities, especially during swarming periods.

Antennae talk

More than helping read the waggle dance, antennae are a general tool for communication. Bees touch antennae to exchange information about health, status, or needs within the hive.

Body language

Bees even use their bodies to send messages. Aggressive postures might ward off intruders, while submissive postures can help integrate a bee into a new colony.

Each of these methods plays a vital role in the hive. This combination of dance, sound, scent, and touch helps honeybees run one of the most efficient and well-organized communities in the animal kingdom.

So, the next time you see a honeybee buzzing by, remember – it’s carrying a secret language within its tiny body, a language of dance, touch, and remarkable intelligence.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.


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