shutterstock 129600581Bees communicate with secret dance moves

The Greek historian Herodotus reported more than 2,000 years ago about a fallacy forbidden experiment in which two children were prevented from hearing human speech so that a king could discover the true, unscientific language of human beings.

Bees communicate with secret dance moves

Scientists already know that human language requires social learning and interaction with other peopleproperty shared by multiple animal languages. But why should humans and other animals learn language instead of being born with this knowledge like so many others animal species?

This question fascinates me and my colleagues and is the basis of our recent ones article published in the journal Science. Like biologistI have spent decades studying honey bee communication and how it may have evolved.

There are two common answers as to why language should be learned or innate. On the one hand, complex languages ​​can often respond to local conditions as they are studied. The second answer is that complex communication is often difficult to create, even when people are born with some knowledge of the correct signals. Given that the ways in which honey bees communicate are quite complex, we decided to investigate how they learn this behavior in order to answer this linguistic question.

What is Waggle Dance? Bees communicate with secret dance moves

Amazingly, honey bees possess one of the most complex examples of non-human communication. They can tell each other where to find resources such as food, water or nest sites with a physical “wobble dance”. This dance conveys direction, distance and quality of resource for the bee’s nests.


Essentially, the dancer points the recruits in the right direction and tells them how far to go by repeatedly circling around in a figure-eight pattern centered around a wobbling run in which the bee shakes its belly as it moves forward. The dancers are chased by potential recruits, bees watch the dancer closelyto learn where to go to find resource messages.

The tumbling dancer gives the instructions, and the followers learn where they can find the specified resource. Dong Shihao, CC BY-ND

Longer swings communicate greater distances, and the angle of the swing communicates direction. For higher quality resources like sweeter nectar, dancers repeat the swing more times and race back faster after each swing.

Making mistakes

This dance is difficult to produce. The dancer not only runs – covering about one body length per second – while trying to maintain the correct angle and duration of sway. Also, it’s usually in complete darkness, in a crowd of jostling bees, and on an uneven surface.

Therefore bees can do three different types of errors: pointing in the wrong direction, signaling the wrong distance, or making more mistakes when performing the figure-eight dance pattern—what researchers call disorder errors. The first two mistakes make it harder for recruits to find the communicated location. A mistake in the upset can make it difficult for recruits to follow the dancer.


Scientists knew that all bees of the species Apis mellifera start foraging and dancing just like they are getting old and that they too followed by experienced dancers before trying to dance for the first time. Can they learn from experienced teachers?

“Forbidden” experiment with bees

So my colleagues and I created isolation experimental bee colonies who could not observe other dances before dancing themselves. Like the ancient experiment described by Herodotus, these bees could not observe the language of the dance because they were all the same age and had no older, experienced bees to follow. In contrast, our control colonies contained bees of all ages, so younger bees could follow the older, experienced dancers.

We recorded the first dances of bees living in colonies with both population age profiles. Bees that could not follow the dances of experienced bees produced dances with significantly more errors in direction, distance, and disorder than the dances of control novice bees.

We then tested the same bees later when they were proficient foragers. The bees that lacked teachers now produced significantly fewer pointing errors and upsets, possibly because they had more practice or had learned to eventually follow other dancers. The dances of the older control bees from teacher colonies remained as good as their first dances.

This finding told us that bees are therefore born with some knowledge of how to dance, but they can learn to dance even better by following experienced bees. This is the first known example of such complex social learning of communication in insects and is a form of animal culture.

Dance dialects are about distance /Bees communicate with secret dance moves

It remained a mystery regarding the bees, who had no dance teachers in the beginning. They could never correct their distance mistakes. They continued to transcend, communicating over greater distances than normal. So why is this interesting to scientists? The answer may lie in how remote communication can be adapted to local conditions.

There can be significant differences in where food is distributed in different environments. As a result, different types of honeybees have evolved in different dialects”, described as the relationship between the distance to a food source and the corresponding duration of the wobble dance.

Interestingly, these dialects differ even within same kind of honey bee. Researchers suspect this variation exists because colonies, even of the same species, can live in very different environments.

If learning a language is a way of coping with different environments, then perhaps each colony should have a remote dialect tailored to its locale and transmitted by experienced bees to beginners. If so, our tutor-deprived individual bees may never have corrected their distance errors because they themselves acquired a different dialect of distance.

Normally, this dialect would be learned by experienced bees, but could potentially change within a generation if environmental conditions change or if the colony moves to a new location.

In addition, each colony has a “dance floor” or the space where the bees dance complex terrain that dancers can learn to navigate better over time or by following in the footsteps of older dancers.

These ideas remain to be tested, but provide a basis for future experiments that will investigate cultural transmission between older and younger bees. We believe that this study and future studies will expand our understanding of collective knowledge and language learning in animal societies.

James K. Nee is associate dean and professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego. This article was republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read on original article.

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