Honeybee Dancers

by Robert Doolan

Imagine you are a honeybee. You leave your hive one fine spring morning and scout around until you notice a field full of new flowers in bloom. The food back in your hive, which the 15,000 bees in your colony have fed on through the winter, has been getting low. But now, in this field, you have found a new food supply. So you fill your honey sac with nectar and fly the 250 metres back to your hive.

The other bees do not yet know where to find the blooms you have discovered. Your brain is only the size of a pinhead, but it is obvious that if you are to utilise this new food source you will need help. Before summer arrives, your colony could number more than 80,000 bees. But the little bit of pollen and nectar you would collect in each half-kilometre round trip could see your colony starve before each member was fed.
So how do you tell the other bees in your hive where to find the blossoms you have discovered?


In the early 1900s, an Austrian naturalist named Karl von Frisch puzzled over this curious problem. Fascinated with the ways honeybees worked together, von Frisch began some revealing studies into the life of these little creatures. What did he find? He found that one of the most remarkable characteristics of bees is the way they communicate. In fact, bees have one of the most extraordinary means of communication in the insect world. Von Frisch discovered that bees express themselves not only by feeling and tasting, but also by dancing.

To identify the location of a food source too distant from the hive to be smelled or seen by the other bees, the scout does a dance on the honeycomb inside the hive. Other bees gather around and closely follow the dancer. They imitate her movements (all dancing worker bees are female), and note the fragrance on her of the flowers from which the dancer gathered the nectar.

If the new food source is nearby, say within about 50 metres of the hive, the bee does a circular dance on the surface of the honeycomb. She moves around two or three centimetres (an inch or so), then circles in the opposite direction. This tells the other bees the food is close by; the scent they detect on her alerts them to what the new food smells like. So the other bees leave the hive and fly around in ever-widening circles until they find the new supply of flowers.

If the new source of nectar or pollen is quite distant, the scout makes an ingenious alteration to her dance. She will dance the shape of a ‘figure eight’, with intermittent movements across the middle of the figure. The distance at which the changeover takes place, from round dance to figure eight, varies between subspecies of bees. But this does not cause confusion among the bees, for the distance is constant within each hive.

Every movement by the scout has meaning for the other bees. They can tell the distance of the food source by the number of times the dancer circles during a given interval, and also by her wiggling abdomen. The greater the distance, the more slowly she wiggles. The direction of the food is revealed by the direction and angle the dancing bee cuts across the diameter of the circle. If she wiggles across the circle straight up, the watching bees know they will find the food by flying towards the sun. If she cuts the circle straight down, they know they have to fly away from the sun.

Should the dancing bee cut across the circle at an angle, the other bees know they must fly to the right or left of the sun at the same angle the dancer moved to the right or left of an imagined vertical line.
This dazzling display of the honeybee dancers is truly a striking feature of the insect world. When we consider the complicated steps of the dance, and the detailed information conveyed and understood through it by all the world’s honeybees (von Frisch took 20 years to decipher it), we are entitled to be scornfully incredulous that this process could ever evolve.

Let’s try to imagine the system evolving. A bee discovers a field in bloom. She returns to her hive and no one else knows where she filled her honey sac. She can’t tell them herself, so the hive has to wait until individual bees haphazardly chance upon the same field, or she has to keep going back and forward hoping someone will follow her. Even worse, she may not remember how to get back to the field herself!

Now let’s suppose that one day an enterprising bee manages to invent the dance. How would she communicate to the others what it meant? How could she ever explain the geometry involved – that the angle she walks across the diameter of the circle is equal to the angle between the sun and the food source? What if the sun goes down before the other bees understand? How does she explain she has invented one dance for a food supply nearby, and another for a supply long distances away?

How does she tell them that if she wiggles very slowly it means the field is very distant, and if she wiggles very fast it means the field is not far? How will they know that if the dancer walks up the honeycomb they should fly towards the sun, but if she walks down they must fly in the opposite direction?

Even more important, if this process evolved gradually over a long time, how would all the bee ancestors have survived while this system of communication was evolving? If they survived without this complicated method, why invent a new system that would be almost impossible to explain?

And the uses for the honeybee dance do not stop there. The dance of the figure eight is also used when bees are selecting a new homesite. If a hive grows too large, the queen may leave with part of the colony to search for a new home. She leaves behind one or more special eggs from which a new queen will hatch. The old queen and her swarm first congregate somewhere, such as on a branch of a tree. Worker bees are then sent to scout around for a suitable new homesite. Any scout who finds a potential site returns to the others and tells them where her favoured site is by doing the ‘figure eight’ dance on the surface of the cluster of bees.

Other bees inspect each site and return to the colony to tell the others what they think of it. The enthusiasm of their dancing reflects their feelings about the suitability of the site. Finally, after perhaps several days of house-hunting, one of the sites gains overwhelming favour and the swarm moves off to start a new hive there.

One researcher watched this dance contest for four days, noting directions and distances of potential sites. He worked out the site which was rapidly gaining favour, then hurried off to find it. He arrived at the new dwelling-place before even the bees did!*

Among the wonders of God’s creation, the honeybee provides some startling evidences for design and purpose by the Creator. The precisely coordinated language used for the bee’s survival has too many necessary and independent parts for such a system to have evolved. We are forced by logic and common sense to conclude that the whole process was implanted in bees at the time of their creation. Like the bees, it did not and could not evolve.

* (The researcher was Martin Lindauer, and this incident is recorded by Dr William Blaney in How insects Live, Galley Press, Leicester (England), 1977, p. 134.)


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