Baby bees learn to dance by studying ‘symbolic language’ of older insects

Honeybee Wagging - Heather Broccard Bell/University of California San Diego/PA

Honeybee Wagging – Heather Broccard Bell/University of California San Diego/PA

Baby honey bees learn to dance to help their mates find the best food, scientists say.

The “waggle dance” is a form of complex communication they must learn and use to let their littermates know where the best food is.

The dance, in which bees circle in figure-eight patterns as they wiggle their bodies, is performed at breakneck speed, with each bee covering a body length in less than a second.

The gestures translate information about food, including direction, distance, type and quality of the meal.

Scientists previously thought the routine was innate in the species, but have now found that it is learned by watching more experienced mates.

They said the passing of this shared knowledge from one generation to the next is “a hallmark of culture” — a behavior commonly recognized in humans, but also observed in animals.

Bee colonies were monitored until young bees participated in their first wag dance. Researchers then observed the same bees 20 days later and found that their dancing was much more accurate and had significantly fewer errors than when they made their first attempts.

They noted that without the ability to follow dancers, bees produced significantly more disordered dances.

The phenomenon has been compared to language development in humans, where early exposure is essential for full development.

James Nieh, professor of ecology, behavior and evolution at the University of California San Diego, said: “We are beginning to understand that animals, like us, can pass on information important to their survival through communities and families.

“Our new research shows that we can now extend such social learning to insects.”

The finding comes because researchers in London have found another bee species, the bumblebee, that learned to solve puzzles by watching their peers.

Commenting on the honeybee research, Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London, said: “The waggle dance is considered one of the most remarkable innovations of animal communication – a symbolic language in an insect.

“But it was rather dismissed as ‘just innate’ – and therefore, in many people’s opinion, less impressive.”

Prof Chittka added: “The discovery that – at least in part – these behaviors must be learned opens up an entirely new perspective: that dance language may have been based in its early evolutionary roots on individual innovations that initially spread through social learning, to later to be cemented into partially tied down, more innate routines.

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