How does a colony of bees agree where to live?


Picture of a swarm of bees.

Thousands of bees usually form a colony.

Some 20 or 30 of bee scouts will wing their way over the countryside in search of a new home.


Bee communication dance



Once a scout finds a place that might serve as a home for a new colony, she will return to the cluster and begin to dance.

The dance, executed on the cluster, makes it possible for the other bees to determine the distance and direction to the site.

While rapidly wagging her abdomen, a dancing bee will move in a straight line for a short distance. 

Turning to the left, she will make a circle until again moving in a straight line. Next the bee will make a circle to the right. 

Thus the dance forms a figure eight with a straight line in the middle. 

The number of complete cycles of the dance during a specific time interval is thought to indicate the distance to the site. 

Researchers have found that distance determination is based on the amount of energy the bee used up in flight.

The direction to the location is revealed by the angle of the straight line in the figure eight from the perpendicular, the perpendicular representing the position of the sun at the time of the dance. 

An angle to the right of the perpendicular points to a place at the same angle to the right of the sun, whereas an angle to the left indicates a site at the same angle to the left of the sun. 

If the bee moves upward on the vertical surface during a straight waggle run, the place lies in the direction of the sun. 

A straight downward waggle run informs the bees that they must fly away from the sun to find the site.

The quality of the location is also revealed by the dance. 

Scout bees that find an ideal site may perform their dances with considerable tempo for more than an hour. 

Of course, such dancing is interrupted by needed periods of rest. 

The dancer, however, does not leave the cluster.

Naturally, the most rapid, sustained dancing attracts the greatest number of bees, which then make an exploratory flight to the location indicated. 

Therefore, when the other scout bees perform their less vigorous dances, fewer bees investigate their finds. 

The scout bees are not bent on sticking with their discoveries. 

They will investigate sites found by other scouts. 

Eventually, perhaps after many hours or even a few days, all the scouts will begin to dance for the best location, thus establishing unity. 

Thus unity is preserved, and some 20,000 to 30,000 bees have the benefit of an excellent location for their new home.