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Communication Among Honeybees: More than a Dance in the Dark

A recent book explores what they're telling one another in different locations.

Key points

  • Jürgen Tautz carefully explains what honeybees are doing when they're communicating with other bees in a dark hive and outdoors.
  • He offers a new model of recruitment communication in honeybees and suggests a to-do-list for future generations of honeybee scientists.
  • Tautz's alternative explanations for some ideas that are written in stone will surely lead to much-needed critical discussions among experts.
  • Bees are perfect “ambassadors” to introduce a wide range of scientific topics.
 Photo by Ingo Arndt, Jürgen Tautz, with permission.
Life inside a hive.
Source: Photo by Ingo Arndt, Jürgen Tautz, with permission.

The inner cognitive lives of bees have always fascinated me.1 A recent book by bee expert Dr. Jürgen Tautz titled Communication Between Honeybees: More than Just a Dance in the Dark critically reviews what we know and don't know about what these bees are doing inside and outside the hive and offers new explanations for previous research. I'm pleased he could answer a few questions about his eye-opening book that offers a most valuable historical perspective on the behavior of these amazing insects.2

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Communication Between Honeybees?

Jürgen Tautz: Trained as a classical biologist I built my career on the study of animal sensory systems and communication. By chance and good luck, I stumbled across honeybees very late in my career. These two facts were important for writing my new book: being trained as a scientist but not raised in a scientific honeybee/social insect school.

 Springer, with permission.
Source: Springer, with permission.

By the time I started with bees I did not know more about them than most people do (they sting and make honey) and of course had heard about the famous “dance language”. After studying honeybees for a while without any hypothesis and reading publications, I did detailed observations different from what I read. Retired a few years ago, I finally had the time to study in great depth publications in journals and PhD projects to figure out what was the basic idea of the so-called “dance language”. In my book I summarize a new model of recruitment communication in honeybees and suggest a to-do-list for future generations of honeybee scientists.

 Jürgen Tautz, with permission.
Recruitment in honeybees
Source: Jürgen Tautz, with permission.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

JT: My major interest is in the interaction between animals and their environment and between one another, i.e predator-prey relationships and intraspecific communication. I studied communication and sensory systems in caterpillars, crayfish, fiddler crabs, wasps, ants, termites, electric fish, tropical tree frogs and more, and finally the honeybees. Trained also as a physicist stimulated me to look steadily for new technologies that could be used in my studies. I find communication in honeybees to be fascinating because all individuals move around freely, but the colony acts as a whole, like one single organism. Information processing has a major role for the well-functioning superorganism honeybee colony.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

JT: "Dance language” in honeybees caught not only the interest of biologists but also linguists, psychologists, and philosophers, because one consequence of the notion of a “dance language” has raised honeybees to a level above all other animals. To cite just one of the statements that followed, until today: “Only human beings and honeybees possess the ability to guide others to an important location by providing abstract information—its direction and distance from the current location”. So, experts from different fields may be interested in the new book.

Because the “dance language” in honeybees is solidly anchored in curricula at schools and universities, teachers and lecturers are an audience of high importance for me.

 Photo by Ingo Arndt, Jürgen Tautz, with permission.
Life outside the hive. The same experienced forager bee who recruits for a new find communicates inside the hive via the waggle dance and outside the hive in flight towards the advertised target following the dance by opening the Nasanov gland.
Source: Photo by Ingo Arndt, Jürgen Tautz, with permission.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

JT: 1: Be aware: Auxiliary hypotheses make matters complicated and shall make one suspicious of the correctness of the track followed. During almost 80 years since the publication of “dance language” recruitment, one problem, known right from the beginning of the studies, was a strong guide to the research programs. It was recognized as a problem right away, that the dances advertising a specific target, the “message” to the recruited bees, show a great variability, but the recruits arrive nevertheless at the advertised spot. In order to solve that problem a number of auxiliary hypotheses have been introduced.

The first one by Karl von Frisch himself and accepted as correct until today: dance followers calculate the arithmetic mean values from the observed single dances. In fact, from directional alignments of waggle phases, estimated by human observers, the true direction to the target can be calculated. The degree of correctness increases with the amount of data and with a certain selection of dance rounds from multi-circle dances. Such a mathematical result must be expected and only result from a data set that is symmetric around the true direction.

Another auxiliary hypothesis assumes that honeybees possess a cognitive map of the landscape and on that basis they do vector calculations to identify the position of the advertised target.

One more hypothesis gets rid of the basic problem described above by assuming that it is not the advertised target that is reached by the recruits, but that the recruits are distributed over a certain area which is advantageous for the foraging of the entire colony.

Another auxiliary hypothesis states that recruits on their first flight towards the target will fly the route and the altitude the dancer had taken. Bees estimate flight distance based on the so-called optic flow, that in turn depends on the environment seen along the flight.

One further hypothesis resulted from the observation that scent alone will get recruits from the hive to the target. This hypothesis claims that there are several alternatives a honeybee can select from to get to the goal and that the classical role attributed to the waggle dance is one of them.

(2) Be aware: If attractive ideas are repeated very often, they turn into a fact.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

JT: My book tries to show that the contents of other books fit perfectly into the new model, even as others try to reduce the complexity of honeybee communication into simpler models. The two existing models contrast each other, but in my view they merge perfectly into the new model.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about bees they will treat them with more respect?

JT: It is wonderful that people have great interest in honeybees. They are perfect “ambassadors” to introduce a wide range of scientific topics. And they are so amazing and wonderful, that respect and admiration follow once one starts to learn about bees. And once you treat honeybees with respect and you understand their essential role in terrestrial ecosystems, you will see nature in toto with new eyes. Such an understanding is essential for our own survival.


In conversation with renowned Jürgen Tautz, bee expert, sociobiologist, animal behaviourist and emeritus professor at the Biozentrum, University of Würzburg. He is a world-leading scientist with a remarkable number of high class publications and a gifted communicator of science. His writing and popular lectures have twice been honoured by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) who included him among the best scientists in Europe in communicating science to the public. Furthermore, he received the prestigious Communicator Award of the German Research Foundation.As gifted communicator and leading scientist, Juergen Tautz has much in common with Carl Sagan, Richard P Feynman, Konrad Lorenz, Vince Dethier and others famous for their work in popularizing science and making it accessible to all.

1) The Fascinating Complex Minds of Bees and Why They Matter; Happy Bees: Bumblebees Show Dopamine-Based Positive Emotions; What Does It Feel Like to Be a Honeybee? Pea-Bees versus computers: Pea-brained bees win the "traveling salesman problem".

2) From the Back Cover: "How Do Bees Find Flowers? During the history of bee research, scientists have peered deep into the inner life of bee colonies and learned much about the behaviour of these insects. Above all, the bee waggle dance has become a famous and extensively discussed phenomenon. Nevertheless, recent insights reveal that while bees are social insects inside the hive they also communicate with one another outside the hive. In this book, Jürgen Tautz, renowned German bee researcher, provides an entertaining, fresh and enlightened account for lay and professional readers, not only about the fascinating dance language but also about additional remarkable phenomena concerning information exchange between bees." [Note: A comment on Amazon about poor editing is misguided.]