A single honeybee colony typically contains 20,000 to 30,000 bees. At
any given time, several thousand female worker bees may be gathering
nectar and pollen from food sources spread over an area of up to 40
square miles. The flower patches where bees find nectar and pollen
differ not only in distance from the hive and size of the patch, but
also in richness -- and a patch's richness decreases as more and more
bees forage there. It's clear that without some way for bees to convey
information about the distance, direction, quantity, and quality of
nearby food sources, the odds of a worker bee finding food would be
left primarily to chance.
Over the course of thousands,
if not millions, of years, honeybees have evolved an extraordinary form
of communication: a behavior that scientists call "dancing."
Although honeybee dances -- one called the "waggle dance"
and one called the "round dance" -- may seem chaotic to most
human observers, researchers have learned to interpret them and are
beginning to understand the wealth of information they hold.
Worker bees perform the waggle dance on a special vertical "dance
floor," which is located near the entrance of the hive to facilitate
quick entry and exit of foragers. Arriving back at the nest, a scout bee
with news of food immediately proceeds to the dance floor, where other
bees waiting for news gather around her. The scout communicates several
key pieces of information during the dance. In the case of the waggle
dance, for example, the longer she waggles, the farther the flower patch
lies from the hive. The more vigorously she dances, the richer the source
Perhaps most astonishingly, a dancing bee can also
indicate the direction of the food source she just visited. The
angle her dance deviates from a vertical line shows others the angle
they should fly relative to the sun when they leave the hive. In other
words, if the food source lies in the same direction as the sun, she
will dance straight up along the dance floor (remember that a hive hangs
vertically). If the food source is in the opposite direction of the sun,
she will dance straight down the dance floor. If the food source lies
along a line 20 degrees to the right of the sun, the angle of the bee's
movement will be 20 degrees to the right of vertical.