Bee dance: is it a limitation or a resource?

The waggle dance is a body language bees use as a communication tool with other worker bees. The dance is meant to indicate where a food source is. More specifically, a bee will point in which direction – relative to the sun – her hivemates will have to fly. She will also indicate how far to fly – which depends by the length of time she will spend wiggling. There is a debate among scientists on whether this “sloppy” dance is beneficial for bees.

One side of the argument…

Many studies documented how this waggle dance isn’t as precise as we thought, arguing that its inaccuracy is a limit imposed by bees’ physiology. 

A study published on Journal of Experimental Biology in 2016 says that even if your hive is 100% Apis Mellifera, there is a good chance these bees might have a mixed genetic origin. This implies that bees with different genetic codes are calibrated a in slightly different way, so they might interpret the waggle dance “to their own rhythm”.

In addition to that, some scientists have doubts on the usefulness of the waggle dance altogether. Behavioural ecologist Christoph Grüter puts things into perspective. 

There are many species of bees, and despite being very social, more than 500 have no dance language. Species of honeybees communicating through waggle dancing are about 10.

…And its counterargument

Nevertheless, part of the scientific community believes that the inaccuracy in honeybee waggle dance improves foraging flexibility. In other words, inaccuracy could even be an adaptive trait, a sign of evolution.

A study published on Scientific Reports in 2014 explores the potential of error in honeybee waggle dance. The authors measured the degree of accuracy in the information provided by the bees. Every dance had its degree of error. Most times the error varied between 10° and 15°. Considering that the average foraging area can exceed 6 km, such margin of error is not small.

In favour of this side of the argument, the authors of the study do talk about the reasons for this evolution. They point out how imprecise information may lead worker bees toward new food resources. Manipulation of mankind on the environment makes it so that bees are less likely to find food always in the same place. For this reason, straying off the path gives bees more chances of survival.

A series of experiments altering the natural habitat of bees produced some interesting results. Some honeycombs were immerged into darkness and rotated horizontally – in normal conditions honeycombs need to be directly exposed to sunlight and they are placed vertically – so that bees would not be able to orientate using neither light nor gravity. Also, scientists conducting the experiments were aware of how good bees’ memory is, so they prevented them from performing waggle dances for 18 days, so that the bees would not remember the destination from memory. The result was that colonies under these conditions had greater foraging success than those relying on the waggle dance.

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