A few days ago after a lovely afternoon game drive, we decided to stop and enjoy a sundowner in an open clearing next to a large river acacia tree (Vachelia robusta). It was almost completely covered in tiny creamy yellow flowers. Within the moments of stillness, we were alerted to an all-pervading hum that filled the air. We glanced up and noticed thousands of small pollinating insects and bees hard at work, buzzing from flower to flower.
By cupping our hands around our ears, turning to face the humming tree, and closing our eyes, we were transported to the busy, bustling world of the bees and their counterparts. Shortly afterwards, we were discussing the amazing ability that honeybees have to locate a food source. In the imminence of Spring, a period revered by the African Honeybee for the abundance of flowers, it is only fitting to shed light on these interesting little wonders of nature. They will soon be out in droves, gathering the succulent yields of the summertime.
Bees are extraordinary creatures for a multitude of reasons, and the more you look for the more you seem to find. One of the most interesting things for me is when it comes to the way the colony obtains food. Nothing is haphazard about their foraging. It is a very efficiently organized and precise task.
Within the hive, there are a small number of scout bees that are programmed to go out and scout for food. Once a food source is located, the bee uses two known tools to understand where it is. One is her solar compass, which lets her remember where things are in relation to the sun. She can do this with the ability of bees to see polarised light, regardless of whether the sky is covered in clouds.
The second is her internal clock, which lets her keep track of how far she has flown. Her internal clock also lets her determine how much the sun moves during her journey. So when she returns to the hive she is able to pass on information as to exactly where the food is in relation to the current position of the sun, not the position of the sun when she found the food.
The scout distributes samples of the food, which will help the other bees find the food when they reach their destination. She will then do a little dance on the hive wall which is known as the ‘waggle dance’. The dance will be done for the recruit bees, who will gather around the scout bee. The entire orientation of the dance is aligned to the Sun’s current position in the sky. This is what they use as a reference point for direction. Therefore the recruits will know in which direction to fly to the food source.
The Dance Procedure
During the ‘waggle dance’ the scout bee begins by running in a straight line while waggling her abdomen and then returns to her starting point by running in a curve to the left or the right of the line. Essentially shuffling in a ‘figure of 8’ pattern.
The straight line indicates the direction of the food source in relation to the sun. If she runs straight up the hive wall, then the foragers can find the food by flying straight in the direction of the sun. If she runs straight down the wall then the bees must fly away from the sun.
The period of waggling determines the distance of the food from the hive. The longer this period of wagging, the further the food source is from the hive. This doesn’t necessarily refer to distance on the ground but more so to the amount of flying time or energy expenditure. Sometimes the air temperature will be different or there might be a headwind for example, so these things will affect the flying time and the ‘waggle period’ will then be adjusted accordingly.
The recruit bees surrounding the dancing bee are then equipped with direction and distance information. So they know exactly where to go, and exactly what they are looking for.
Another tier of fascination with this ability is that the hive can recognize which food sources the ‘recruit bees’ do not return from. For example, certain routes from hive to food source will make the little recruits an easy target for birds or other animals that prey on or harm them. Once the hive identifies a high-risk food source, the dancing scout bees will no longer send their recruits to that food source. Isn’t that incredible?
This dance is also used to locate new nesting sites and water sources. This is just one of many of the various interactions that contribute to the inner workings of the hive. Next time you encounter a bee buzzing about from flower to flower, I hope that you are reminded of how amazing these little insects are.