Older honey bees teach younger ones to ‘twerk’: study

Move over, Queen Bey, these pollinators may have you bee-t.

Honey bees have a signature “waggle dance” — and researchers have discovered how the insects learn it.

A new study published in the journal Science on Thursday described the “waggle dance” as a type of communication that informs fellow bees where resources are located. Until now, how the bumbling bees learned their squirmy sweet dance moves has been a mystery.

The researchers concluded that the “waggle dance” can be learned culturally, touting it as “one of the most complex known examples of non-human referential communication.”

In other words, it’s creating a lot of buzz.

Bee at flower
Honey bees “dance” to communicate where resources are located to other bees.
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“We are beginning to understand that, like us, animals can pass down information important for their survival through communities and families. Our new research shows that we can now extend such social learning to include insects,” study author James Nieh, a professor in the department of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution at UC San Diego, said in a statement.

Bees perform the “waggle dance” by circling in a figure-eight pattern while wiggling their bodies back and forth. The dance, “performed at breakneck speed,” is used to communicate the location of food as a way to “ensure the survival of their colonies.”

The study’s authors — Nieh and Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers Shihao Dong, Tao Lin and Ken Tan — created colonies for the purpose of scientific observation. They tested how the “waggle dance” was transmitted from bee to bee.

honey bees swarming
A new study has discovered how honey bees learn their staple “waggle dance.”
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The bees that were never able to observe this method of communication being practiced by experienced “waggle dancers” had more difficulty with the dance. Researchers noticed that the unschooled insects performed “more disordered dances with larger waggle angle divergence errors and encoded distance incorrectly.”

But in colonies where the younger bees could learn from the experienced ones, the young ones’ footwork was pristine. They were able to refine their moves and therefore communicate better, while less well-trained bees adopted a different “dialect” of communication — talk about a buzz kill.

“Scientists believe that bee dialects are shaped by their local environments. If so, it makes sense for a colony to pass on a dialect that is well adapted to this environment,” Nieh said in a statement.

Because of their findings, the researchers now want to investigate the role of the environment on the honey bees’ ability to communicate.

“We know that bees are quite intelligent and have the capacity to do remarkable things,” Nieh added. “Multiple papers and studies have shown that pesticides can harm honey bee cognition and learning, and therefore pesticides might harm their ability to learn how to communicate and potentially even reshape how this communication is transmitted to the next generation of bees in a colony.”

Past research has observed other aspects of honey bee behavior, like their ability to “clone” themselves — or, in other words, asexually reproduce. Another study showed that bees “ejaculate” themselves to death when they overheat.

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