(CNN) The booty-shaking worker bees direct fellow workers to the pollen through a form of communication known as a “waggle dance”—performing steps that mark where food is and how far from the hive it is.
Now scientists have discovered that bees sharpen these movements when they are young, by touching the antennae of the bees’ dancing bodies. If they miss this opportunity, their dances have more errors and their maps are less accurate.
Waggle dances are difficult to perform, and missteps can send foraging bees in the wrong direction. But there is a crucial learning stage in a young worker bee’s life when she is about 8 days old – before she becomes a full-fledged forager – that helps her perfect her dance.
When the older workers return to the hive and dance, the younger workers watch them closely. By doing this, less experienced bees learn to perform dances that produce more accurate maps of their next meal. All worker bees are female.
Genetics plays a role in bee dances, and previous studies have shown that some dance details that communicate distance are species-specific.
However, the new findings show that the language of bee dances is not entirely innate but is shaped in part by social learning, the scientists report. Thursday in Science Magazine.
They also found that if novice workers were denied the opportunity to learn from more experienced bees, they produced more sloppy dances, with more errors. Some aspects of Map Dance have improved over time, but other nuances have been lost for good.
Calling the Waggle dance is complex, said study co-author James Nieh, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, and the task of bees made even more complicated by having to perform on irregular vertical honeycomb stages without light.
“As a wobbly dancer, you’re running forward, darting at about one body length per second over this open dance floor with holes,” said Nieh.
“You are surrounded by hundreds and thousands of bees that you have to push away, and darkness in complete darkness.” He added that the bees in the colony follow the dance through physical contact with the dancer.
Despite the challenges, the bee has to skillfully use its body to convey a lot of information. The dancer follows a straight line called a “shake race”, then returns to the starting point by alternating left and right curves; I did this again and again, making a figure-eight. The duration of the vibrating motion tells cellmates how far the food is, and the angle of the vibrating run relative to the centerline indicates direction to the food source.
What would happen if the young bees did not have the opportunity to watch others dance? To find out, the researchers set up five colonies where all the bees were the same age, with no experienced seniors. When the bees were old enough to feed, the study authors recorded their dances and then compared them to the dances of bees in five control colonies containing adults of different ages.
“They could all dance,” Nie said. “But the bees that could follow the more experienced dancers – the teachers – danced better.”
In their early dances, bees without orientation performed dances with more errors in their direction angles and in distance coding communicated by the vertical vibrating track.
By the time the bees were 20 days old and fully experienced and mature foragers, their performance had improved somewhat. Their dances were more structured, with fewer directing errors. “However, they were unable to communicate properly remotely,” Nie said. Once these errors were encoded into the dance, the unteaching bees repeated the errors for the rest of their lives.
“What struck me most is that this represents a new level of complexity in transmitting information within a bee colony,” bee researcher Paul Seifert, who was not involved in the study, told CNN by email.
said Siefert, research associate at Institut für Bienenkunde Oberursel of the Polytechnische Gesellschaft, Goethe University, Frankfurt in Germany.
The findings also raise questions about the role social learning might play in other interactions within the honey bee colony, “for example, in hygienic behavior against the Varroa mite,” a parasite that targets honey bees, Seifert added.
Another question the scientists hope to answer, Nieh said, is whether social learning can shape changes in the colony’s shake dance, so that updates about shifts in their ecosystem can then be passed on to younger bees through the shakes of older adults.
“We’ll see how quickly they can adapt to those local conditions and pass on that information, and really test this hypothesis that distance coding reflects habitat.”
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