Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have discovered that honeybees learn to communicate through a waggle dance, which conveys the direction, distance and quality of a resource, by following experienced bees. The scientists created colonies of bees that could not observe waggle dances until they did it themselves, then compared their first dance to those of control colonies that contained bees of all ages who could follow experienced dancers. The bees who had no teachers produced dances with significant errors in direction, distance and disorder but fewer mistakes when they had more practice or learned by following other bees.
The waggle dance is one of the most complicated examples of non-human communication as the dance signals where to find resources such as food, water or nest sites, and is produced in total darkness, amid a crowd of jostling bees and on an irregular surface. The dance requires the bee to maintain the correct waggle angle and duration and circle around in a figure eight pattern centered around a waggle run, while running at about one body length per second.
Scientists suspect honeybees have evolved different dance dialects to adapt to local conditions, and colonies use varying dialects depending on the environment. Differences in food distribution in different environments are thought to have led to the variations. A colony’s distance dialect is tailored to its local area and passed on from experienced bees to novices. The researchers suggest that teacher-deprived individual bees may develop a different dialect to adapt to their environment, and that each colony’s dance floor has complex terrain that the dancers may learn to navigate better over time.
The study is the first-known example of complex social learning from teachers in insects and potentially expands our understanding of collective knowledge and language learning in animal societies. The findings also have implications for the future of communication, suggesting that if learning language is a way to cope with different environments, this could be an important tool for societies of the future.