What’s more, the dance is now helping scientists understand more about the health of the landscape and the quality of the environment surrounding beehives.
Writing in the journal Current Biology*, scientists from the University of Sussex in Brighton,
UK, describe how they set out to test the effectiveness of EU-sponsored agri-environment schemes using a novel technique – analysing “dancing honeybee foraging preferences across an urban-rural landscape”. Essentially, the bees were used as bio-monitors to assess the various local habitats on behalf of the researchers.
The team videoed and decoded 5,484 waggle dances from three laboratory-maintained honeybee colonies living in 94 km2 of rural and urban landscapes. They divided the area into various conservation schemes, regulated by the UK government, and mapped which areas were most frequented by the bees over two years. What makes this study particularly interesting is the large size of the sample and the sophisticated way in which the data has been analysed.
So what did the researchers find?
Most honeybees favoured Castle Hill, a nature reserve rich in wild flowers two kilometres away from the hives. They also showed a preference for farms covered by Higher Level Stewardship schemes that set aside part of their land for wildlife. What seemed surprising at first – that the bees did not favour land undergoing transformation towards an organic regime – is explained by the fact that such areas tend to be regularly cut and mowed so wild plants tend not to have the opportunity to bloom; instead there’s just short grass.
Using bio-monitors like honeybees could be a quick and cost-effective way of evaluating expensive management schemes that aim to make land more wildlife-friendly. Because honeybees are generalists, their preferences may also transfer to other pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies. However, although this technique may be able to inform us about the abundance of food sources in an area, it may not be able to tell us much about biodiversity, some experts suggest.
What is a waggle dance?
The waggle dance is a figure-of-eight dance performed by foraging bees to communicate the abundance and direction of food sources to other members of their colony. The dance was first interpreted by the great ethologist and Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, although people have suspected that the moves communicated information right back to the time of Aristotle. Bees also use chemical signal or pheromones to communicate.
By performing the waggle dance, foraging bees returning to the hive are able to share information about the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources or even to new nest locations. The direction and duration of waggle runs are closely correlated with the direction and distance of the resource being advertised by the dancing bee. The bees use the position of the sun as a reference point and are able to adjust for its movement through the sky during the day.
*Margaret J Couvillon, Roger Schürch, Francis L W Ratnieks, “Dancing Bees Communicate a Foraging Preference for Rural Lands in High-Level Agri-Environment Schemes”, Current Biology.