Today’s Factismal: It takes ten million trips before honeybees collect enough nectar to make on pound of honey.
Life isn’t easy if you are a honeybee. Either you are a male, doomed to a short life filled with taunts of being just a drone, or you are a female, doomed to a life stuck in the hive laying egg after egg, or you are a worker, doomed to a longer life filled with finding nectar to turn into honey to fill the comb. But the workers do have a way to make life a little better by making it easier to find nectar; they dance.
As Martha Graham will tell you, dance is a way to talk and to share ideas. And the dance of the honeybee (called the bee dance or the waggle dance by entomologists ) is remarkably good at doing that. To perform the dance, a worker flies from the flower back into the colony and starts to waggle its abdomen as it crawls up the comb. The angle that the dance makes tells the other bees the direction to fly in order to find the flower, and the length of time that the bee waggles tells the other bees how far away the flower is. Even better, the number of waggles that a bee makes tells the other bees how good a source of nectar it is.
Because it is dark in the hive, the other bees cannot see the dance. Instead, they place their antennae on the lead bee’s abdomen, forming a conga line of workers. And because there is more than one flower patch in the world, there can be several competing waggle dances going on at the same time. Bees have been known to crash through each other’s waggle dances in attempts to capture more workers for “their” flowers, and even to lie about the quality of the flowers by increasing the number of waggles!
Though the waggle dance has been known since the time of Aristotle, it wasn’t recognized as a language until very recently. By carefully watching how bees reacted when they were given feeders full of sugar water, etymologists like Karl von Frisch were able to carefully decode the dance and other honeybee behavior. For his work, von Frisch was given the Nobel Prize in 1971.
And etymologists continue to learn more about how honeybees communicate and other mysteries of the species. If you’d like to help, then why not join the Bee Spotters: