When a bee finds a bush covered with flowers, or a tree loaded with blossoms, it’s only a matter of time before a great number of bees arrive to gather pollen and nectar. Activity within the hive looks something like Times Square on New Year’s Eve; thousands of bees going about their individual tasks. How does the first bee let other bees know where the flowers are located?
Communication about the location of food is accomplished through a dance language. A few bees, called scout bees, fly around searching for new sources of food. When a scout finds a good patch of flowers, she flies back to the nest.
She walks into the hive and up onto one of the combs, where other workers are grouped. There she performs a dance by running in a accurate pattern that communicates the direction and distance of the flowers to the other bees.
The details of the dance were worked out by Karl von Frisch and his coworkers and are detailed in his 1967 book the Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Von Frisch was able to watch the bees perform dances by replacing among the walls of the hive with glass.
When the food is more than 300 feet away from the honey bee colony, the scout honey bee dances in a figure-eight pattern. The bee first runs straight ahead for a exact distance wagging her abdomen from side to side. Then she turns left and circles back to the beginning point, where she begins forward again, waggling the same distance as before.
When she reaches the point where she turned, she circles back to the right. Depending on how plentiful the nectar is, the figure-eight could be repeated a number of times. The bees can get some information about what type of flower the scout bee visited by the odor of the nectar.
The tail wagging portion of the dance indicates both the direction and distance of the flowers. When the bee dances on the vertical face of the comb, straight up is the direction of the sun. The angle the bee runs (from straight up) indicates the angle of the food from the sun.
For example a bee that runs straight down when the sun is in the west indicates the food directly east. How long the bee goes forward wagging indicates distance. When the food is less than 300 feet away, the bees omit the tail wagging portion of the dance and merely circle around.
The process for locating a new colony site during swarming also requires communication between bees. Several bees go out to find suitable locations. Once located, they indicate to the other bees what’s been found and where it is. There can be more than one scout returning from different locations, and somehow the swarm of bees investigates the alternatives and chooses which one to follow.