Bee Waggle Dance 2014 05 23
A bee's high-speed waggle dance tells its hive-mates where to find the best pollination spots. Image: Dr. Roger Schürch.

In a hive buzzing with honeybees, there's a whole lot of shakin' going on. To the untrained eye it might look like random bees vibrating along an imaginary path over the comb, then circling back through hoards of other bees to do it again. But to bees, this high-speed weaving is a waggle dance – an intricate pattern of moving and shaking that tells other bees where to find the best flowers at which to feed.

By decoding these groovy moves, scientists can also learn both the direction and distance to quality bee food. What’s more, in a study published yesterday in Current Biology, researchers suggest bees can function as tiny ecological consultants, providing information about the health of the environment.

Along with a host of undergraduate students, the study's lead author Margaret Couvillon and co-authors Roger Schürch and Francis Ratnieks decoded almost 5,500 waggle dances from bees that foraged in a mixed urban-rural area near the University of Sussex in the UK.  

They wanted to know what kind of forage bees preferred when feeding in an area with various landscape types managed to different environmental standards.

When the decoded waggle dance locations were mapped, the bees showed they had a preference for rural land managed through Higher Level agri-environment schemes  (AESs). These are financial incentive programmes designed to make existing agricultural land more wildlife friendly through the adoption of environmentally friendly practices. AESs cover 45% of the rural landscape in the UK.

Measuring Bee Dance 2014 05 23
Using a recording of the hive activity (top), the study's lead author Dr Margaret Couvillon 'decodes' the waggle dance by measuring the angles of the dancing insects using a protractor (bottom). Images: Professor Francis Ratnieks and Dr Roger Schürch.

Within the Higher Level AESs land-use category, the two most visited areas contained a national and local nature reserve.

While throughout the UK and the rest of the European Union billions of dollars have been spent on AESs, the authors say that prior to this study, "there [was] either a lack of, or mixed evidence-based support of the schemes".

The study may provide some of the first evidence to support the schemes, at least in part.  However, the authors were surprised by some of their findings.

Says Couvillon, "When we first started, we thought the urban environment would contribute more. There is increasing interest in keeping bees in the cities, and cities have a lot of gardens and parks with forage available."

She is quick to point out that this may not be the case in other parts of the UK and hopes others will repeat the study in different locations.

This kind of 'bee consulting' may have broader applications for the protection of pollinating insects, the decline of which has been linked to land-intensive agricultural practices. The reason, Couvillon points out, is that the honeybee is a generalist, meaning it visits flowering plants that are also visited by other pollinators like bumble bees, hoverflies and butterflies. As those insects don’t waggle dance, the honeybee can be their ambassador, helping to identify areas that are likely important forage.

“This kind of 'bee consulting' may have broader applications for the protection of pollinating insects.”

Couvillon's research comes at a critical time for pollinators in the UK. This year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that 24% of European bumblebees are now threatened with extinction. Bumblebees, like other pollinators, play a critical role in food production.

"I hope this study inspires future studies, not just with honeybees, but with other wildlife to see how the [AESs] are doing with them,” says Couvillon. “I think that sort of information is important before decisions can be made about the schemes themselves."

Top header image: Brian Hoffman, Flickr