Dancing in the Dark by Jacqui Glisson

Does the waggle dance work in a large colony?

By Jacqui Glisson, West Cork Beekeepers’ Association

There is nothing like the festive season to bring home the difficulties of communicating in a house full of people. Ever tried to ask some-one to pass the salt during the Christmas meal? It requires some determination and a fair bit of perseverance. So how do bees in large colonies manage to communicate? We know that when honeybees are building their comb, they modify it to improve the conduction of vibrations.

The information in the waggle dance is communicated in part by vibration of the comb. Even queen bees transmit vibrational signals to communicate with other queens. So you would expect that in a large colony, the sheer volume of movement across the comb would make it almost impossible for bees to feel the vibrations transmitted for communication.

In fact, the opposite is true. In a study published in the Journal of Behavioural Ecology and Social Biology in November 2017, it was found that bigger honey bee colonies have quieter combs. Surprisingly it was found that when there are more bees on the comb, the vibrations are actually reduced. The researchers found that the bees actively damped vibrations in the comb, possibly by the way they grasped the combs.

It seems that the bees adopted a posture, straddling many combs at once. They leaned into and compensated for the vibrations. The exact mechanism remains to be identified, but it is interesting that the bees have managed to develop a system that eliminates noise in order to improve communication. Now, if I can just figure out how to do the same at home!!!