Dance Language of the Honey Bee

Social behavior in bees has a number of advantages. One of the most important of these is the ability to quickly mobilize a large number of foragers to gather floral resources that may only be available for a short period of time. The ability to communicate location with such precision is one of the most interesting behaviors of a very interesting insect.

The recruitment of foragers from a hive begins when a scout bee returns to the hive engorged with nectar from a newly found nectar source. She begins by spending 30-45 seconds regurgitating and distributing nectar to bees waiting in the hive. Once her generosity has garnered an audience, the dancing begins. There are 2 types of bee dances: the round dance and the tail-wagging or waggle dance, with a transitional form known as the sickle dance.

In all cases the quality and quantity of the food source determines the liveliness of the dances. If the nectar source is of excellent quality, nearly all foragers will dance enthusiastically and at length each time they return from foraging. Food sources of lower quality will produce fewer, shorter, and less vigorous dances; recruiting fewer new foragers.

The Round Dance

Photo: Bill Tietjen, Bellarmine University

The round dance is used for food sources 25-100 meters away from the hive or closer. After distributing some of her new-found nectar to waiting bees the scout will begin running in a small circle, switching direction every so often. After the dance ends food is again distributed at this or some other place on the comb and the dance may be repeated three or (rarely) more times.

The round dance does not give directional information. Bees elicited into foraging after a round dance fly out of the hive in all directions searching for the food source they know must be there. Odor helps recruited bees find the new flowers in two ways. Bees watching the dance detect fragrance of the flower left on the dancing bee. Additionally, the scout bee leaves odor from its scent gland on the flower that helps guide the recruits.

The Waggle Dance

As the food source becomes more distant the round dance is replaced by the waggle dance. There is a gradual transition between the round and waggle dance, taking place through either a figure eight or sickle shaped pattern.


Shown here is a dancing bee on a swarm. The marked bee has returned from a sugar water feeder. She is seen here being unloaded by a number of bees, and then begins to dance, which communicates the source of sugar water related to the current sun azimuth. This recording was produced at the University of California, Riverside by Kirk Visscher.

The waggle dance includes information about the direction and energy required to fly to the goal. Energy expenditure (or distance) is indicated by the length of time it takes to make one circuit. For example a bee may dance 8-9 circuits in 15 seconds for a food source 200 meters away, 4-5 for a food source 1000 meters away, and 3 circuits in 15 seconds for a food source 2000 meters away.

Photo: Bill Tietjen, Bellarmine University






Direction of the food source is indicated by the direction the dancer faces during the straight portion of the dance when the bee is waggling. If she waggles while facing straight upward, than the food source may be found in the direction of the sun.

Photo: Bill Tietjen, Bellarmine University











If she waggles at an angle 60 degrees to the left of upward the food source may be found 60 degrees to the left of the sun.

Photo: Bill Tietjen, Bellarmine University












Similarly, if the dancer waggles 120 degrees to the right of upward, the food source may be found 210 degrees to the right of the sun. The dancer emits sounds during the waggle run that help the recruits determine direction in the darkness of the hive.



Source: The information in this article was taken from “The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees” by Karl von Frisch