Biopoetics: Honey bee dance evolution from Apis mellifera to Apis florea

Whew, what a title! A huge shout out to Slag Review for publishing this poem in 2016 – you can read it here and listen to me read it aloud here. You can find the scientific paper this poem was ‘found’ in here.

Honeybee in Rochester
A foraging Apis mellifera in my backyard this summer. Photo credit/Meghan Barrett; published in 2017 in The Waggle.

This poem is about my favorite organism (though not my favorite species) – the bee; specifically, the honey bee. The paper this poem was found in is titled “Dance precision of Apis florea – clues to the evolution of the honeybee dance language?” and explores the dancing communication behavior of two species of honeybee.

All honeybee species use something called ‘the waggle dance’ to communicate the direction of and distance to new food sources and possible new nests (if the colony is getting ready to swarm – where they take off, and find a new home together). You can see a great video of this behavior here (starting around 1:20) – it’s pretty cute. The duration of time a worker bee spends wiggling back and forth indicates how far away the source is, the direction she orients her dance indicates the direction of the source in relation to the sun, and there is some evidence to suggest that she can also describe how ‘exciting’ her find is with the vigor of her dancing.

Different species of honeybees nest in different locations – some nest in the open, on a branch or cliff face (like Apis florea), and others nest in much more precise locations, like a cavity in a hollow tree (such as Apis mellifera). This leads to differences in how precise the dances of these species need to be when advertising for new nest sites; open nest sites require less precise dances than small cavity nest sites. By contrast, almost all advertisements for food sources do not need to be very precise – usually floral patches are very large (like cliff faces).

This paper studied the dance precision of A. florea and A. mellifera; they found that A. florea workers danced with the same imprecision whether they were advertising food sources or nesting sites. In contrast, A. mellifera increased its dance precision when advertising a new home for the swarm, as compared to food sources. I won’t get into a long evolutionary explanation here since we’re running low on word count, but the authors suggest that their results present evidence in favor of the waggle dance evolving firstly for communicating about nesting sites – and then was later adapted for foraging as well.

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