The dance of the honeybee is actually a form of communication. Ernst Spitzner reported it in the 1780’s. He described seeing a honeybee scout “full of joy”, twirling in circles in the nest. He described watching the scout leaving the nest followed by other bees when she returned to a supply of food.
In the 1960’s, Karl von Frisch studied the honeybee dance. He discovered that honeybee field workers, or scouts, return to the nest after they find a supply of food. The scout does a “dance” to recruit the other bees to return to the food and help bring the food to the nest.
Von Frisch discovered that the scout’s movements tell the rest of the bees what she has found, what direction it is, and how far away it is from the nest. If the scout has found pollen or nectar, she will have some of it on her body. The other bees will know what the scout has found from the way she smells. .
The honeybee scout does the “round dance” if the food is within 10 meters of the nest. The bee runs in a small circle in one direction. Then she changes direction and runs in a small circle in the opposite direction.
If the food supply is more then 100 meters from the nest, von Frisch discovered that the scout do a different dance. She moves in a straight line with a series of wiggling movements. Von Frisch called this the “tail-wagging dance”. If the food is located in between 10 meters and 100 meters, the scout bee does a combination of the two dances.
Von Frisch learned that the bee changes the number of “tail wags” according to the distance from the nest to the food. The further the food is from the nest, the fewer “tail wags” the scout makes. He also learned that the straight part of the dance indicates the direction to the food relative to the sun.
Von Frisch did other studies about the honeybee’s ability to see colors, their ability to smell, and their ability to taste sweets. He discovered that honeybees orient themselves by the direction of the sun, by the polarized light in the sky, and by the magnetic field of the earth. Von Frisch received the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1973.