Waggle Dance Detectives

It isn’t often that we have the pleasure of meeting and hearing a real expert.

I attended a talk recently by Professor Ratniek of Sussex University. It was organised by local beekeepers. They all knew a thing or two. But you know a real expert when they open up complex ideas and then put them across in a simple, understandable way.

Professor Ratniek is such a person.

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He heads up LASI at Sussex University – not the dog but the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects.

Prof Ratniek and his trusty researchers have been putting on their Sherlock Holmes deer stalker hats and getting out their magnifying glasses to view thousands of bee waggle dances. Bees use the waggle dance to tell their fellow bees where they have found a promising food source.`

By decoding the dances, LASI built up a picture of where the bees were telling their bee mates to go to forage, thus deducing where the bees actually went to collect nectar and pollen. A nifty bit of detective work by our academics – using the bees to do their own leg work.

The surprising thing was the results. Bees were travelling huge distances but also travelling much more in the summer than in the spring to find food .

Waggle-dance-forage-heat-map

The picture above shows a plot of where the dancing bees were telling their nest mates to go. On the right, the plot shows that in spring in 2010 and 2011 the bees were flying about a kilometre on average to forage.

That is amazing itself. These tiny creatures were flying 1km there, collecting a basketful of pollen and then flying 1km back.

In the summer in those same years – shown on the left, the bees were flying three kilometres on average to their food destination and as far as 10 kilometres to bring home the bacon (so to speak). That is, to be quite clear, 10kms there and 10km back! I think that is a marvel.

In the autumn, it is somewhere in-between.

The distances flown by the bees are astounding but why do the bees have to fly so much further in the summer than the spring or even the autumn?

The answer is thought to be that in the spring we have a huge abundance of flowers from dandelions to crocuses to fruit trees and other trees. In the autumn, we have ivy flowering. It is a very discrete flower, most people don’t even know that it flowers but it is plentiful and the bees love it.

Comb-packed-fuill-of-pollen

In the summer though there are fewer flowers about. The hay meadows of the past have largely gone and the way we farm to feed our prosperous mouths means a monoculture with not a flower to be seen, acre after acre. There is also a lot of competition about as well, with many more insects such as bumble bees at their maximum population in the summer.

So, our wonderful academics have shown that the bees fly astonishing distances to provide for their hive but also that habitat loss has a real impact on the bees. And they have demonstrated it so beautifully and simply.

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