As social insects living in a colony, honey bees must communicate with one another. Honey bees use movement, odor cues, and even food exchanges to share information.
Honey Bees Communicate Through Movement (Dance Language)
Honey bee workers perform a series of movements, often referred to as the "waggle dance," to teach other workers the location of food sources more than 150 meters from the hive. Scout bees fly from the colony in search of pollen and nectar. If successful in finding good supplies of food, the scouts return to the hive and "dances" on the honeycomb.
The honey bee first walks straight ahead, vigorously shaking its abdomen and producing a buzzing sound with the beat of its wings. The distance and speed of this movement communicates the distance of the foraging site to the others. Communicating direction becomes more complex, as the dancing bee aligns her body in the direction of the food, relative to the sun. The entire dance pattern is a figure-eight, with the bee repeating the straight portion of the movement each time it circles to the center again.
Honey bees also use two variations of the waggle dance to direct others to food sources closer to home. The round dance, a series of narrow circular movements, alerts colony members to the presence of food within 50 meters of the hive. This dance only communicates the direction of the supply, not the distance. The sickle dance, a crescent-shaped pattern of moves, alerts workers to food supplies within 50-150 meters from the hive.
The honey bee dance was observed and noted by Aristotle as early as 330 BC. Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology in Munich, Germany, earned the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his groundbreaking research on this dance language. His book The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, published in 1967, presents fifty years of research on honey bee communication.
Honey Bees Communicate Through Odor Cues (Pheromones)
Odor cues also transmit important information to members of the honey bee colony. Pheromones produced by the queen control reproduction in the hive. She emits pheromones that keep female workers disinterested in mating and also uses pheromones to encourage male drones to mate with her. The queen bee produces a unique odor that tells the community she is alive and well. When a beekeeper introduces a new queen to a colony, she must keep the queen in a separate cage within the hive for several days, to familiarize the bees with her smell.
Pheromones play a role in the defense of the hive as well. When a worker honey bee stings, it produces a pheromone that alerts her fellow workers to the threat. That's why a careless intruder may suffer numerous stings if a honey bee colony is disturbed.
In addition to the waggle dance, honey bees use odor cues from food sources to transmit information to other bees. Some researchers believe the scout bees carry the unique smells of flowers they visit on their bodies, and that these odors must be present for the waggle dance to work. Using a robotic honey bee programmed to perform the waggle dance, scientists noticed the followers could fly the proper distance and direction, but were unable to identify the specific food source present there. When the floral odor was added to the robotic honey bee, other workers could locate the flowers.
After performing the waggle dance, the scout bees may share some of the foraged food with the following workers, to communicate the quality of the food supply available at the location.
- The Honey Bee Dance Language, published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
- Information Sheets published by The University of Arizona Africanized Honey Bee Education Project.