Bees across spaces, species have similar waggle dances

Scientists find commonality in bees’ famed 'Waggle Dance'

The movements provide detailed spatial information on where nutrition or a food source can be found

New research shows that in spite of differences in the behaviour of the dancer, the bees following this dance observe the dancer from identical vantage points and respond to the information with similar behaviours. The finding that the followers behave similarly suggests that this spatial information is communicated by a highly conserved mechanism. Credit: DH File Photo

New research suggests that there are common mechanisms involved whenever Asian honey bees communicate through dance.

The first observation and translation of the famed “waggle dance” of bees had won the German-Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize in 1973, after von Frisch found that it was used by foraging bees to communicate with each other about food sources and encourage their nest mates to forage for food. However, researchers have still not fully understood how honey bees carry out this communication.

The “waggle” takes the form of the bees aimlessly circling in a space. However, for other bees of the hive, the movements provide detailed spatial information on where nutrition or a food source can be found.

In a release, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) postulates that one reason is due to the fact that the signals are different in different bee species. “In some species, the dancer makes a sound while in other species the dancer is silent but waves its abdomen up and down in addition to the sideways waggle,” NCBS said.

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New research by a lab run by Dr Axel Brockmann at NCBS shows that in spite of differences in the behaviour of the dancer, the bees following this dance observe the dancer from identical vantage points and respond to the information with similar behaviours. 

“The finding that the followers behave similarly suggests that this spatial information is communicated by a highly conserved mechanism. The different signals the dancers of the different species produce are likely there to attract the attention of possible dance followers,” NCBS said. 

Dr Brockmann, the lead author of the study, explained that this is analogous to how humans, regardless of language or culture, stress certain words and hand gestures in a common way which can be understood by all humans.

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The Centre said that this is the first study of its kind to analyse and compare the behaviour of dance followers in Asian honey bee species. The current study is part of a larger research project in Dr Brockmann on the evolution of dance behaviour. 

NCBS said that the ongoing research on bees could not only help increase knowledge of honey bees in general, but also potentially help carve out design strategies to build conversation about “these important but threatened pollinators in India.”

The study has recently been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.