Honeybees use social learning to perfect their so-called “waggle dancing” skills by watching more experienced mates, scientists have said.
Wagging is a form of communication by which the honeybees tell their nestmates where to find the best food.
The scientists noticed that bees that didn’t learn to dance by watching others made disordered movements full of mistakes.
The researchers said the findings, published in the journal Science, show that the wag dance is a complex form of communication within these bees that is shaped by social learning.
They said the passing of shared knowledge from one generation to the next is “a hallmark of culture” — a behavior well recognized in humans, but also observed in animals.
Study author James Nieh, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution at the University of California at San Diego in the US, said: “We are beginning to understand that animals, like us, can transmit information important to their survival through communities and families.
“Our new research shows that we can now extend such social learning to insects.”
Scientists have known for some time that honey bees perform the wag dance to warn fellow colony members of a good source of pollen, nectar or water.
But it was unclear whether this dance was innate (pre-programmed) or learned behavior.
The researchers designed five experimental colonies with young bees as young as one day old.
In a waddle dance — in which the bees circle in figure-eight patterns as they waddle their bodies — every movement within the dance translates to information about food, including direction, distance, type and quality of the meal.
Dr. Dong Shihao, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in China, who is the first author of the study, said: “As these bees aged, we monitored the colonies until we observed the first waggle dances, and then we observed the same dancers 20 days later when they had more foraging and dancing experience.”
The team found that, despite not having been exposed to it before, the bees started dancing a week or two after hatching.
However, the researchers noted that these bees produced disordered dances with “significant errors in direction and distance.”
The team found that directionality improved as the bees gained experience, but they continued to overestimate distance in their dances throughout their lives.
It’s because recent research from Queen Mary University of London has shown that another bee species – the bumblebee – 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, who is also the author of the new book The Mind Of A Bee, added: “The discovery that – at least in part – this behavior has to be learned opens up a whole new perspective: that perhaps the language of dance traced its early evolutionary roots back then. , based on individual innovations that initially spread through social learning, only to be cemented later in partially embedded, more innate routines.