An extraordinary symbolic communication system exists among Honey Bees. In studies of honey bees begun in the early 1900s, the Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch determined many of the details of their means of communication.
In a classic paper published in 1923, von Frisch described how after a field bee discovers a new source of food, like a field in bloom, she fills her honey sac with nectar, returns to the nest or hive, and performs a vigorous but highly standardized dance.
If the new source of food is within about 90 m (about 295 ft) of the nest or hive, the honey bee performs a circular dance, first moving about 2 cm (about .75 in) or more, and then circling in the opposite direction. Numerous bees in the nest or hive closely follow the dancer, imitating her movements.
During this ceremony, the other workers scent the fragrance of the flowers from which the dancer gathered the nectar. Having learned that food isn’t far from the nest or hive, and what it smells like, the other bees leave the nest or hive and fly in widening circles until they find the source.
When the new source of nectar or pollen is farther away, the discoverer performs a more elaborate dance characterized by intermittent movement across the diameter of the circle and constant, vigorous wagging of her abdomen. Every movement of this dance seems to have significance. The number of times the bee circles during a given interval informs the other bees how far to fly for the food.
Movement across the diameter in a straight run indicates the direction of the food source. When the straight run is upward, the source is directly toward the sun. Should the straight run be downward, it signifies that the bees may reach the food by flying with their backs to the sun.
In the event the straight run veers off at an angle to the vertical, the bees must follow a course to the right or left of the sun at the same angle that the straight run deviates from the vertical. Bees under observation in a glass hive demonstrate their instructions so clearly that it is possible for trained observers to understand the directions given by the dancers.
Certain aspects of the dance language, like how attendant bees perceive the motion of dancers in the total darkness of the nest or hive, are still unknown. The dance language is an important survival strategy that has helped the Honey Bee in its success as a species.