So You Think Bees Can Dance?

Did you know that bees dance? It’s true! Honeybees (in particular, foraging worker bees) utilize several dancing patterns to communicate with their sisters, so essentially, dancing is a sort of honeybee language! We will discuss two of these dances, the round dance and the waggle dance, below. First, we should discuss the principles of a language.

A language is not simply comprised of grammar and vocabulary, but rather a combination of elements such as phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Language is versatile, and may change throughout various situations, environments, and companies.  We Homo sapiens communicate and express ourselves through speech, body language, art forms. We differ from other organisms on Earth because we are creatures “who know;” we are capable of abstract and complex thought. While we have developed a plethora of languages for communication, other animals rely on physical movement, simple sounds, and the release of chemicals to communicate with other members of their population and community.

Ferdinand de Saussure was instrumental in the field of linguistics, creating core concepts, including value and sign (comprised of a signifier and a signified). A signifier would be a word or uttered sound used to indicate or allude, such as the word (or sound), “bee”. The signified can be considered the ~essence~ of something, including general characteristics of what it is. In this case, the word or sound of “bee”, may be associated with the colors black and yellow, a buzzing sound, big eyes, and so on. The essence of a bee (determined by Saussurian value, or the context in which the word or sound of “bee” is found) may also be comprised of excluding characteristics, such as that a bee may be white with iridescent wings, sporting a priceless diadem. However, since there is an arbitrary relationship between the signifier and signified of a sign, the association between the signifier and signified varies for everyone, and varies in different contexts.

Karl von Frisch was the first to interpret the honeybees’ waggle dance, which is very intricate in nature. Honeybees (foragers in particular) triangulate the location of a source of nectar and pollen by also factoring in the location of the hive and the position of the sun. The honeybees crawl in a figure-eight shape, the angle determined by the sun’s position, while waggling. The amount of time spent waggling indicates the distance of the food source, with roughly each second equivalent to 100 meters. Because the  Here is a video that Dr. Doebel filmed of honeybees demonstrating the waggle dance in our classroom observation hive at GW.

The round dance is similar but not as complex as a waggle dance. In performing the round dance, a forager honeybee will turn in alternating circles. The round dance does not demonstrate any sort of timing or angle, to help other bees find the food source. But because the round dance is used to point towards food sources within 35 yards of the hive, and the forager bee will carry the scent of the particular food source, the other bees know what they’re looking for, and have a general sense of how close it is to the hive. Cool, right?

Honeybee dance can be considered a language in that it conveys all sorts of information, and the bees adapt the dances to account for variations in environment. Other types of communication exhibited by honeybees include emitting pheromones (e.g. an alarm pheromone when they sense danger) and buzzing.

We hope you liked this blurb about honeybee dance language, and don’t forget to stay tuned for more updates here at GW Buzz! Also, we hope you are just as excited as we are for our early spring. Have a hap-bee Wednesday!


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