The Waggle Dance

Karl von Frisch discovered that a highly stereotypical motion pattern that honeybees perform on the comb surface conveys to a human observer the circular coordinates (direction and distance) of relatively well-defined locations. The term ‘waggle dance’ denotes a form of this pattern which conveys information on targets located fairly far from the hive. It is embedded in a series of communication systems enabling a honeybee colony to coordinate the activity of its members during foraging and nest-site selection.

The video above shows a waggle dancing forager in slow motion.

In the waggle dance, a successful forager moves forward on the comb surface while wagging its abdomen from side to side at about fifteen times per second. This straight portion of the dance is called a ‘waggle-run’. Without interruption, it moves in a semicircular trajectory and returns to the starting point of the last waggle-run. This portion is called a ‘return-phase’, and the dancer tends to alternate clockwise and counter clockwise throughout successive return-phases. Once at this position, it repeats the forward, wagging portion of the dance. The entire motion pattern is strongly linked to the dancer’s recent navigation experience. First, flying bees use the sun as a reference to maintain a course, and the average orientation of a dancer’s successive waggle-runs relative to the direction of gravity approximates the angle between the direction toward the goal and toward the sun. Second, honeybees gauge the distance they travel (most likely by integrating self-induced optic flow during flight, i.e., the net amount of image motion over the retina accumulated during movement), and the average length of the waggle-runs increases together with the flown distance. The waggle dance is thus an intriguing example of multisensory convergence, central processing, transformation between sensory modalities and motor coordination that contains indexical information for the follower bee about the indicated location.

This video gives a good summary: