Nature Blog Network

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

International Communications - Dance It

ResearchBlogging.orgBee dancing has long been an interesting, if a bit controversial, subject for science with research articles focused on deciphering the meaning of dances, led by the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Karl von Frisch. The essence of the dance is that successful foragers return to the hive and dance a figure 8. In the crossing section of the figure 8, the bee waggles its abdomen. The duration of the waggle section indicates the distance to the food source. The angle of the cross part (the tilt of the 8 if you will) indicates direction of the food source.

Now new Open Access research published in PLoS One looks at “international” communication capabilities between two species of honeybee: the eastern or asian honeybee, Apis cerana and the Western or European honeybee, Apis melifera. There are several species of honey bees that have been studied and each was observed as having a different dance style. To eliminate as many uncontrolled variables (primarily season, time, spatial scales, wind and geography of separate experiments) as possible, and be able to directly compare two species, a team of scientists from Australia, China and Germany creative a single hybrid hive with an A. cerana queen and a mixed worker population. They tried colonies with an A. melifera queen but in those colonies the A. cerana workers were killed and removed from the hive within 3 days. Even in the A. Cerana queened hybrid hives the team sometimes had to use active measures to keep the hive harmonious including spraying agitated bees with sugar syrup and honey water and removing troublemakers. Without active controls the hybrid hives lasted 20 days before the introduced workers were all killed or driven out, with active control the hives lasted in excess of 50 days. The harmonious hybrid hive also showed food transfer (trophollaxis) between species and mixed species workers tending the queen when she was laying eggs.

The researchers found that each species did have a distinct “dialect” primarily expressed in the duration of waggle to distance relationship. A. cerana bees waggled their butts significantly longer than A. melifera for all distances of food from the hive in both single species and hybrid hives. The team continued to evaluate understanding between the two species and found that the workers from either species were able to understand the dance of foragers regardless of the “dialect” of the dance and that the A. cerana were more likely to follow any successful forager than A. melifera. Both the direction and distance to the food source were accurately communicated between species.

Whats cool is that, as the researchers point out, this might be a social learning situation. Interspecific communication and potentially interspecific learning. It may be that if a longer term experiment can be successfully conducted, the two species of bees waggle durations may converge over a longer period.

Su, S., Cai, F., Si, A., Zhang, S., Tautz, J., Chen, S., Giurfa, M. (2008). East Learns from West: Asiatic Honeybees Can Understand Dance Language of European Honeybees. PLoS ONE, 3(6), e2365. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002365


  1. This is a very serious and interesting post.

    But somewhere penguins confront each other.

  2. Ack! Random antarctic macro attacks!

    I was going to take it in a totally different direction re: the more waggle in the butt the further they want you to go... but nah... it's been done before.

  3. African penguins live in temperate regions of South Africa.

    And you don't want to see what they do to unwanted moulters.

  4. Shoulda recognized the Jackasses since I see them once a week.
    Yep, they can be pretty aggressive alright a nip from them is not forgotten quickly.

  5. I have find memories of being nipped by penguins as a caretaker of them for over a year at the Monterey Bay aquarium.

  6. And they have fond memories of you too, I'm sure.

    At NEAQ they are all named after breeding islands, so the caretakers are bit by Falkland, Arthur, and especially the dreaded Noir.

    Have you done a song about penguins? I suggest this title: "They'll Bite Yer Jewelry Off."

  7. Much better names than "Green-pink" or "yellow-blue"..though politically incorrect when you have to report that "Falkland bites!"

    If you do the ong I've got the cover art for the "single" (or am I dating myself) I guess nowadays it would be the art for the iTunes.

  8. lol the 7" single?

    I can certainly be persuaded to write a penguin song!

    I would love to visit the New England Aquarium! You penguin exhibits looks striking like MBA's from that picture. We had 15 jackass penguins which were named after places in south africa too. Limpopo was my favorite, she would let us preen her and put her on our laps for the penguin show.


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