The Waggle Dance Gets Bees Moving

Finding a new home can be a difficult process, but any family wanting to do so intelligently -- without trying to kill each other -- might benefit by learning how to do the waggle dance.

Especially if the family has as many as 10,000 members.

Honey bees make those decisions all the time, and the methods employed by these highly organized social colonies have long intrigued and mystified scientists.

How do honey bees, or any society for that matter, subvert the will of the few in the interest of the many? Or more precisely, as scientists have recently learned, how do bees make the right collective decision nearly all of the time, at least when it comes to picking a new home?

That may not seem like a particularly pressing question, but scientists want to know the answer because group decision-making processes affect all of our lives.

Whether it's a family searching for a new home, or the U.S. Congress trying to pass a budget, how decisions are made is a complex, and often wrong, process.

That's why for decades now scientists have turned to honey bees for a little help. A report in the current issue of American Scientist spells out the latest research.

"The fundamental decision-making dilemma for groups is how to turn individual preferences for different outcomes into a single choice for the group as a whole," says Thomas D. Seeley, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University.

Seeley, along with entomologist Kirk Visscher of the University of California-Riverside, and Ohio State University engineer Kevin Passino, have been studying honey bees for more than a decade now, and they've confirmed and enlarged upon previous research showing that for bees, the waggle dance is everything.

More than half a century ago scientists in Germany learned that when a scouting bee returns to the nest after finding a new source of food, she goes through a series of gyrations called the "waggle dance."

She flies forward, vibrating her abdomen laterally, and then returns to her starting point, completing one circuit. The number of circuits she completes tips off the rest of the bees as to the quality of the resource.

A Democratic Dance

The German researchers learned later that the waggle dance also played a role in the selection of a new home, but it was unclear exactly how that process played out. Over the years other scientists have picked up that theme, but questions remained.

Do the bees reach a decision through a democratic process in which the majority rules? Does everybody have a voice? Do they nearly always get it right?

The answer to all those questions is "yes."

"This is a striking example of decision making by an animal group that is complicated enough to rival the dealings of any department committee," Seeley says.

It happens every year when a colony outgrows its nest and the queen bee takes off with about half the hive in search of a new home. The bees form a heart-shaped swarm, usually in a nearby tree, while hundreds of scouts are sent off to find a new location.

Usually, several potential sites are found, and the scouts return to the swarm and perform the waggle dance. Researchers have found, however, that not all waggle dances are the same.

If the site is only mediocre, for example, the scout may only complete a few circuits of the dance. If it's a dandy prospect, however, she may do 100 or more.

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