Any population as successfully organized as the honey bee hive surely would be expected to have a means of communication. The language of honey bees does not involve an alphabet or words and it was little understood until recent years. Professor Karl von Frisch, after some 40 years of observation and research, was able to interpret the language of bees.
His experiments clearly showed that the honey bees have an exact language based upon characteristic dances, odor, and taste perception. When a foraging honey bee finds a source of pollen or nectar, she is able to communicate this information to other honey bees in the honey bee colony accurately as to direction, distance from the honey hive, and the kind of plants supplying it.
The language dance performed within a honey bee colony is oriented on the combs about the sun. The angle between the sun, food source, and honey hive decides the direction of the dance orientation. A dance straight up on the combs vertical axis means towards the sun; to the right, so many degrees to the right of the sun; and to the left, so many degrees to the left of the sun. A rapid dance means a short distance; a slower dance means increased distance.
The honey bees don’t actually have to see the sun’s rays to be capable of transmitting or interpreting this food source information since they can perceive and interpret direction from the polarized light they receive from the sky. The plant producing the food is identified by the odor association of the food gathered by the dancing honey bee.
Assume that a scout honey bee finds food in an apple orchard one mile to the east in the direction of the sun at 8:00 o’clock in the morning, the dancing forager will move over several cells straight up the vertical axis of the comb, vibrating its abdomen from left to right at a frequency appropriate to the distance. She then turns first right then left to reverse herself and repeats the straight-line run of the wagtail dance, pausing occasionally to give food to surrounding honey bees. She usually repeats the dance a number of times in one location and then moves on to another and performs the identical dance again.
The honey bees of a certain age respond to food gathering leave the honey hive looking for food from the exact same source in the direction and distance indicated by the dancing honey bee. All these honey bee recruits will not stop to visit plums, pears, dandelions, or another sort of blossom after acquiring the smell association of food from apple blossoms. When food is obtainable from this exact same orchard at noontime, the dancing forgers will make the straight-line run of their wagtail dance 90. to the left of the vertical axis of the comb. If food is still available in the evening, the dance will orient along the vertical axis but in a downward direction.
Scout honey bees forage for food sources before the primary force of food-gathering bees venture forth to the harvest. The recruited honey bees also dance when they return to the honey bee colony since food is available. As a result, the number of foragers increases at a rapid rate, the increase being limited by the food available.
When the supply from a given plant species is limited, other honey scouts from the same colony might find plants of a different species and location producing pollen or nectar. Therefore, there might be more than one informative dance performed in the hive at one time. Honey Bees once oriented to a plant species rarely visit others if the first source continues to supply food.
Dances similar to those giving direction for food are performed by scout honey bees who locate a domicile to be occupied by a swarm that has issued from a colony. There are many other dances performed by honey bees that obviously extend the area of communication beyond food gathering and locating a domicile.