Study Decodes Bee Booty Shakes To Investigate If They Have Favourite Flowers

Honey bee waggle dance interpretation is crucial to informed conservation efforts, Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock

Rachael Funnell 13 Feb 2020, 17:18

The relentless booty-shaking of honey bees has finally been decoded in a study that observed over 1,500 bee jigs known as “waggle dances”. The research goal was to provide on-the-ground information to better inform conservation groups working to halt the decline of honey bees by providing greater insight into their dietary preferences.

As eusocial flying insects, honey bees (Apis mellifera) live in complex hierarchical societies led by a queen bee. Their society is known as a colony and together they create honey by gathering and processing pollen. For this reason, bees play an enormously important role within ecosystems as by visiting one flower after another they pollinate plants giving rise to a new generation.

Unfortunately, as a result of illness, diminishing green spaces, and a shift toward monocrop agriculture, which robs the landscape of the necessary biodiversity needed to support pollinators, global honey bee populations are in jeopardy. Fortunately for the bees, they’re the poster species of pollinators, and there’s an enormous amount of public support for organizations and initiatives trying to restore native habitats and improve honey bee colony nutrition.

Restoring these areas with the right plants however is easier said than done, one doesn’t simply walk into a bee colony and ask them what they like to eat. "The thing I think is the most interesting about bees is their communication," said Morgan Carr-Markell, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota and the lead author of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, in a statement to AFP. "So, I wanted to be able to use that to help land managers who are interested in planting for bees..."

They began by studying waggle dances and were able to successfully decode 1,528 different dance moves in an effort that must surely constitute the Rosetta stone of booty shakes. They did this by essentially creating a dance arena for the foraging bees, observing their routines in a hive separated by a piece of glass.

The results revealed a complex dance that consists of repeating loops in figure-of-eight runs. During the straight part of the figure-eight, the dancer shakes their butt back and forth to define the direction of a flower, and then indicates its position relative to the Sun on the horizon by making an angle with their body. Particularly profitable patches of food seem to be implied by the number of repeats of the routine, with better sources calling for more and more encores. You can see it firsthand in the video above, and may I be so bold as to suggest you pop this on in the background to enhance your viewing pleasure.

Next, they needed to determine if the bees had a favorite plant variety. To do this, they sent some bees into a stupor by cooling them down before swiping the pollen loads on their legs. Microscopic investigation revealed the bees’ legs were practically billboards for their preferred plant’s pollen.

The effort to which bees will go in shaking it until the other bees make it to their preferred foraging spots shows that specificity is key when establishing protected foraging habitats to support colonies. This information comes at a crucial time for bees, which are in decline and currently under siege from a host of mysterious pathogens made worse by their increasing use in agriculture.

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