Now, a new study in the journal Science shows that honeybees aren’t quite born to boogie. To perform their tail-wagging waltz well, young bees need to watch the adults on the dance floor.
“There’s a lot that can go wrong with the waggle dance,” said James C. Nieh, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego, who co-authored the paper published Thursday. “So it’s interesting that it’s beneficial for bees to learn from more experienced bees to reduce these errors.”
A series of recent experiments show that bees and other insects are not simply genetically wired to perform certain tasks. Instead, they are able to imitate each other, a behavior called “social learning” usually associated with larger-brained creatures such as monkeys and birds.
Bees may have small brains, but they work together to do mighty things with them.
“This is social learning of a really complex communication system,” Nieh said. “One of the most complicated animal communication systems known.”
For their research, the team recorded and analyzed recordings of European honey bees in 10 colonies in the lab of Ken Tan, a senior professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and another co-author. Tan has endured thousands of bee stings during his research career. “I love bees,” he laughed. “To me it’s nothing.”
Young bees in half of the hives could observe old bees doing what bee biologists call the “waggle dance”. In the second half, young bees were deprived of experienced dance partners to practice with.
To the human eye, bees dance at breakneck speed. To perform the waggle, the insect shuffles forward while furiously wiggling its abdomen back and forth — “so fast,” Nieh said, “that it’s usually a blur.” The bee circles back around to make that swing again and again, forming a figure eight pattern on the gingerbread.
The routine is coded with lots of information. The angle of the middle of the figure-eight tells foraging bees which direction to fly. More repetitions means richer food. And the more a bee wiggles, the further away the food is.
Bees around 10 days old without experienced dance partners performed the waggle dance more inconsistently than their 10-day-old counterparts in hives with experienced bees, the study found. Over time, the bees got better at communicating the direction of the nearby food, but they could never get the dance movements to communicate distance quite right.
“The circle dance is thought to be one of the most remarkable innovations in animal communication – a symbolic language in an insect. But it was previously dismissed as ‘just innate’ – and therefore, in the understanding of many, less impressive,” wrote Lars Chittka, a sensory and behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, in an email.
But this new research “opens up a whole new perspective,” said Chittka, who was not involved in the study.
“Cultural diffusion may have been how some elements of this behavior first emerged,” he said.
Bees work so well together—some scientists call hives “superorganisms”—that people have long believed they had a sophisticated way of communicating.
Aristotle observed the wagging dance and noted that bees kept returning to the same flowers. In 1973, the Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize, among other things, for having translated the meaning of dance.
Recently, researchers have trained bees to pull on a string and even to teach each other how to play a miniature game of soccer. (Objective: drag a small ball to the center of a platform.)
Today, however, there is a threat to the dance party. Tan and Nieh’s previous research shows that heavily used pesticides can harm pollinators’ ability to learn.
After being exposed to the toxins, “the waggle dance changed,” Tan said. “They have more mistakes.”