News, Culture & Society

Honeybees’ waggle dance reveals those in rural areas travel further for food

It’s well known that honeybees pull off some nifty dance moves when they want to communicate with each other.

But scientists have now decoded these ‘waggles’ — a kind of shuffle the bees perform to tell the rest of their colony where to find nectar — and found that those in rural areas travel 50 per cent further for food than their urban friends. 

The waggle dance is used to communicate the location of flowers. When one bee finds a good patch, it returns to the hive and performs a figure of eight movement on the honeycomb to tell others where to find the food.

Other bees observing the dance know how far to fly based on the duration of the central run of this dance, while the angle tells them which direction to go.  

Scientists have decoded the 'waggle dances' performed by honeybees — a kind of shuffle they do to tell the rest of their colony where to find nectar (stock image)

Scientists have decoded the ‘waggle dances’ performed by honeybees — a kind of shuffle they do to tell the rest of their colony where to find nectar (stock image)

The researchers found that those in rural areas travel 50 per cent further for food than their urban friends

The researchers found that those in rural areas travel 50 per cent further for food than their urban friends

HOW DO HONEYBEES MAKE A QUEEN?

Honeybees make a queen by treating a normal youngster in a unique way, causing it to develop into a queen rather than a worker.

They start by building a special, larger cell, and filling it with a substance called ‘royal jelly’.

This is a combination of water, sugars and proteins that appears milky in colour, secreted from glands in the heads of worker bees.

A youngster is then plucked from its cell and placed into the unique cell with the royal jelly, which it consumes.

It is also denied pollen and honey to aide its development, which is fed to normal workers.

The study looked at more than 2,800 waggle dances from 20 honeybee colonies in London and the surrounding countryside. 

Researchers at Royal Holloway University and Virginia Tech calculated that bees in urban areas had an average foraging distance of 1,614ft (492m), compared to 2,437ft (743m) for bees in agricultural areas.

They also found no significant difference in the amount of sugar collected by the urban and rural bees, indicating that the longer foraging distances in rural areas were not driven by far away, nectar-rich resources.

Instead, urban areas provided honeybees with consistently more food, thanks in part to the work of city gardeners.

The study’s author Professor Elli Leadbeater, from Royal Holloway University, said: ‘Our findings support the idea that cities are hotspots for social bees, with gardens providing diverse, plentiful and reliable forage resources. 

‘In agricultural areas, it is likely harder for honeybees to find food, so they have to go further before they find enough to bring back to the hive.’

The researchers warn that because urban areas make up a small percentage of total land cover, they are unlikely to be sufficient to support bee populations across a landscape dominated by intensive agriculture.

Professor Leadbeater added: ‘Conservation efforts should be directed towards increasing the amount of non-crop flowers in agricultural areas, such as wildflower strips. 

‘This would increase the consistency of forage available across the season and landscape as well as minimize bees’ reliance on small numbers of seasonal flowering crops.’

The study recorded dances between April and September in 2017 across 10 sites in central London, and 10 in agricultural areas of the home counties. 

The study looked at more than 2,800 waggle dances from 20 honeybee colonies in London and the surrounding countryside (stock image)

The study looked at more than 2,800 waggle dances from 20 honeybee colonies in London and the surrounding countryside (stock image)

The study recorded dances between April and September in 2017 across 10 sites in central London, and 10 in agricultural areas of the home counties (pictured)

The study recorded dances between April and September in 2017 across 10 sites in central London, and 10 in agricultural areas of the home counties (pictured)

Researchers then decoded these dances and mapped out where the bees had been. 

They also harvested data on the sugar concentration from forages by collecting 10 returning bees on each hive visit and inducing regurgitation of collected nectar. 

This allowed the researchers to test their assumption that longer foraging trips reflected a dearth of available forage rather than the existence of distant but high-quality resources.

‘In this study, we overcame the hurdles of assessing floral resources by getting the bees themselves to tell us where to find food,’ said Professor Leadbeater. 

‘Calculating the distance to forage indicated by the waggle dances provides a real-time picture of current forage availability, from the bees’ own perspective.’

However, because the research focused on honeybees, which are domesticated and not threatened, the experts cautioned that their findings will not apply to all bee species, many of which are in decline. 

‘While we can potentially extrapolate our results to some wild bees, such as generalist bumblebee species, our results should not be used to imply that this pattern will hold for all bee species,’ said Professor Leadbeater.

‘For many solitary bees, the existence of specialist host plant species or nesting sites will be important in determining whether cities are valuable habitats.’

The study has been published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology. 

DO THE WAGGLE DANCE: THE INTRIGUING BEHAVIOUR OF HONEY BEES 

Bees in a colony work with each other to gather food – to achieve this they use an ingenious and fascinating method of communication.  

When one bee finds a good flower patch, it heads back to the hive to recruit other bees from their colony back to the patch.  

To tell those bees where to find the best flowers, bees communicate flower location using special dances inside the hive. 

The bee does a waggle dance while the other bees watch to learn the directions to a specific patch. 

The waggle dance tells the watching bees two things about a flower patch’s location – the distance and the direction away from the hive. 

Distance 

A longer waggle run (left) indicates the crops are further away than a shorter one (right)

A longer waggle run (left) indicates the crops are further away than a shorter one (right)

The dancing bee waggles back and forth as she moves forward in a straight line, then circles around to repeat the dance. 

The length of the middle line, called the waggle run, shows roughly how far it is to the flower patch.

Direction 

The angle at which the bees dance in the hive can indicate the angle to travel outside the hive to reach the flowers

The angle at which the bees dance in the hive can indicate the angle to travel outside the hive to reach the flowers

Bees know which way is up and which way is down inside their hive, and they use this to show direction. 

To do this, bees dance with the waggle run at a specific angle. 

Outside the hive, bees look at the position of the sun, and fly at the very same angle that they’ve just observed, going away from the sun. 

If the sun were in a different position, the angle would stay the same, but the direction to the correct flower patch would be different. 

Round dance 

A round dance tells watching bees that the flower patch’s location is somewhere close to the hive

A round dance tells watching bees that the flower patch’s location is somewhere close to the hive

A round dance tells the watching bees only one thing about the flower patch’s location – that it is somewhere close to the hive. 

This dance does not include a waggle run, or any information about the direction of the flower patch.

In this dance, the bee walks in a circle, turns around, then walks the same circle in the opposite direction. 

She repeats this many times. 

Sometimes, the bee includes a little waggle as she’s turning around.

The duration of this waggle is thought to indicate the quality of the flower patch she has found.

Source: Arizona State University

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk