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The Mind of a Bee - Communication Through Dance

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Photo above by: @ymustang5

Bees are expert communicators and navigators. It takes an impressive level of cognition to navigate our backyards, find all the flowers, and avoid all the dangers that these little insects face every day. Bees get a lot of hate because of their defensive stings when the hive is threatened, but they don’t get enough credit for their amazing skills and adaptations in such a small body. So what is buzzing in those little heads of theirs?

Bees live in a 3D world with potential food all around them. In a hive group, it benefits the whole colony to share information for where to find food and bees have evolved an impressive technique to share this information. It's called the waggle dance. When bees enter their hives after finding food, they move along the wall of the hive in a particular direction and waggle their butts, called abdomens in the insect world. The duration and intensity of the waggle tells distance while the direction along the wall corresponds to the direction of the food in their environment.

To understand the language of the bees, think of the hive wall as a map of their surroundings. The direction of the food is always told in relation to the sun which on the hive wall map is always positioned at the top of the hive. If the waggle is towards the top of the hive that means the food is towards the direction of the sun when they exit the hive. If the waggle is towards the bottom of the hive that means the food is in the opposite direction of the sun when the exit the hive. Left and right waggles correspond to left and right directions for food sources. And the bees actually adjust their waggle to the movement of the sun throughout the day. The sun’s position on the hive wall will stay the same but the direction of the waggle dance will move. Look at the bottom of this post for a link to a video of the waggle dance on YouTube.

Photo above by: @ymustang5

For many years scientists believed that the sun was the only way in which bees could orient themselves. But recent findings have found that bees have another trick up their sleeves. Bees make use of cognitive maps to navigate their surroundings. This means they create mental images of landmarks in their environment and use them to find their way back to the hive. Humans do this too. A great example is when you can remember what the turn on your route looks like but you forget the name of the street. To test this, scientists took bees that had left their hive, induced sleep to create a time shift so that they couldn’t rely on the sun. The scientists then released the bees and watched them find their way home.

Photo above by: @ymustang5

We are continuously amazed by the magnificent minds of small organisms like the bee’s. Bees evolved a complex navigation system for both the individual organism to navigate their environment as well as the ability for that individual to convey information about that environment to their peers within the hive. In addition, bees play an irreplaceable role in the balance of the ecosystem. All great reasons to love and respect these organisms.

A Video of the Waggle Dance:


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