A honey bee colony consists of tens of thousands of individual members, each having a specific role within the context of the “superorganism.” Communication among colony members is a very important part of a healthy and productive hive. Honey bees utilize two basic methods of communication to distribute pertinent information: behavior and the production of chemical signals. Chemical signals, also known as pheromones, are released into the air by glands on a honey bee’s abdomen. Each pheromone has a specific meaning and consequently a specific behavioral result or implication. An individual honey bee’s behavior also can be interpreted as a physical message, queuing up a specific response from members of the hive witnessing the behavior.
The “Waggle Dance” involves a combination of both chemical and behavioral communication. As indicated by the name, the Waggle Dance is an actual dance, or at least a coordinated series of intricate movements. The dance involves two stages known as “phases,” the waggle phase and the return phase. The complete circuit of the Waggle Dance takes the basic pattern of a figure eight. The waggle phase takes place in the center crossing portion of the figure eight pattern while the return phase is either of the loops in the figure eight pattern.
The waggle phase is characterized by a run through the center of the pattern with a side to side wiggle or “waggle” of the bee’s abdomen. Two very important pieces of information are delivered by the waggle phase of the Waggle Dance: distance to nectar source and quality of nectar source. The actual length of the waggle phase indicates approximate distance from hive to food source. A short waggle run symbolizes a near-by nectar source while a longer waggle run reveals information about a nectar source a bit farther away from the hive. In addition, the intensity of the waggle reveals information about the quality of the food source. A very rapid waggle is testimony of an abundant nectar and pollen source, while a slower waggle indicates a less bountiful location.
The waggle phase also holds information about the location of the food source. If the run is performed in an upward direction on the vertical section of honeycomb in the hive, the nectar source is directly in line with the sun. Any run performed at an angle off the vertical section of honeycomb indicates that the nectar source will be found at a similar angle off of the location of the sun. For example, a waggle run 90° to the right of the vertical honeycomb indicates a nectar source 90° to the right of the sun’s position outside the hive’s entrance.
The return phase of the Waggle Dance delivers the honey bee back to the beginning of the waggle phase where the behavior is repeated. Occasionally, honey bees will compete for attention of their peers in the “selling” of the location of their nectar source. Such competition can result in exhaustive dancing and very intense waggling!
Four chemical pheromones are generated during the Waggle Dance. The specific purpose of these chemicals is uncertain, but researchers believe that Waggle Dance pheromones can draw a larger audience to the dance floor and subsequently send a greater number of worker bees on the prescribed foraging mission. In fact, a group of researchers from the University of London were able to increase the number of dance onlookers and foragers by injecting Waggle Dance pheromones directly onto the site of the Waggle Dance. It would seem that these chemicals serve a dual purpose. First, the pheromones draw a greater crowd around the dance and the waggling bee. Secondly, the chemicals seem to intensify the watchers’ desire to forage.
The Waggle Dance is only one of many distinct communication behaviors that takes place within every honey bee colony. It is but one word in the incredible language of the honey bee!