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The Honey Bee Dance Language

The Honey Bee Dance Language


There can be no argument that the most famous aspect of honey bee biology is their method of recruitment, commonly known as the honey bee dance language. It has served as a model example of animal communication in biology courses at all levels, and is one of the most fascinating behaviors that can be observed in nature.

The dance language is used by an individual worker to communicate at least two items of information to one or more other workers: the distance and direction to a location (usually a food source, such as a patch of flowers). It is most often used when an experienced forager returns to her colony with a load of food, either nectar or pollen. If the quality of the food is sufficiently high, she will often perform a “dance” on the surface of the wax comb to recruit new foragers to the resource. The dance language is also used to recruit scout bees to a new nest site during the process of reproductive fission, or swarming. Recruits follow the dancing bee to obtain the information it contains, and then exit the hive to the location of interest. The distance and direction information contained in the dance are representations of the source's location (see Components of the Dance Language), and thus is the only known abstract “language” in nature other than human language.

The dance language is inextricably associated with Dr. Karl von Frisch, who is widely accredited with interpreting its meaning. He and his students carefully described the different components of the language through decades of research. Their experiments typically used glass-walled observation hives, training marked foragers to food sources placed at known distances from a colony, and carefully measuring the angle and duration of the dances when the foragers returned. His work eventually earned him the Nobel Prize (in Medicine) in 1973.

The concept of a honey bee language, however, has not been free of skepticism.

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