Yeah, right.

Many of us have heard something about how bees will return to their hives and do a dance or something to tell their sisters how to get to a food source they have found. Some may remember how that discovery fed the controversy concerning language and the divide between man and the lower creatures of nature. That's because a few decades ago, the discovery of the honeybee waggle dance caught the public imagination long enough for people to remember and relate the idea, but not long enough for them to understand it. You didn't really believe that, did you?

It's true

Well, honeybee (Apis mellifera) scouts do indeed perform identifiable patterns of movements when they return to the hive with pollen or nectar from a newly found source. And yes, those 'dances' do indeed present information that the other foragers can recognize and use to fly more or less directly to the new food source. In the hive, the dance is always performed on a vertical wall of a honeycomb near the entrance. There may be two or more dancing bees competing for attention, but the audience will pay attention only to the most enthusiastic one. A dance lasts several minutes. There are two styles of dance, circle and waggle. The purpose (or at least the effect) of the dance is to inform other bees of a good location, which may be a food source or a good site for a new nest, depending on the situation.

The result of the dance is that some of the foraging bees are recruited to leave the nest and seek the location indicated by the dance. They pick up on the signal pretty fast and the ones that are convinced head out to find the food according to the intelligence provided by the dancer. The dancer does not join them, but stays behind in the hive for several hours. Some research has shown that only 11% of the recruited bees actually end up finding the right spot. Most of the bees don't even try to use the information and just stay in the nest.

The circle dance

The 'circle dance' tells the audience that the new-food source is somewhere within 50 m (150 ft) to 80 m (240 ft) from the hive, but it gives no information about the site's direction relative to the hive. The circle dance is actually a very bent, narrow figure-eight movement, like a figure eight that has been stretched around a circular form.

The waggle dance

The waggle dance is more complicated and tells the eager audience both the distance and the direction of a place that is further than 50 meters from the hive. The waggle dance is also a figure eight, but it's a fat, short one and the part where the loops connect is a longish straight line. (Think of an apple cut in half parallel through its core.) The straight-line part of the pattern is where the waggle (rapid tail shaking) is done.

This straight line is the signal part of the dance. The orientation of the line relative to the vertical indicates the direction to the target relative to the sun's position. The waggling is accompanied by a sound that is not directly related to the waggling, but seems to be a part of the signal. When the bee reaches the end of its waggle line, it quietly walks back to the starting point in a loop, first in one direction and then in the other the next time (usually). The distance appears to be indicated by the number of waggles, the sound, and the frequency of the looping.

Try it yourself

This Nova Web site let's you test your own skill at interpreting the waggle dance. Can you better the bees themselves?

Is this communication?

Yes, it is. Some may feel that communication by bees is controversial. Let's abstract this episode to see why it must be considered as communication. First, an independent actor (scout) models aspects of the real world that are relevant to its needs (acquires information from experience). That actor performs actions that code the model as assertions about the real world in a manner that allows each of other independent actors of its type (foragers) to create the same model in its own system. The others then may use that acquired (transferred) model as the basis for useful action (obtaining something that is required by them). I suggest that this episode, cleaned up a bit, serves as a very useful definition of communication. Of course there is a major 'but' here, which is 'intention' or 'purpose'. Does the dancing bee have a sense of purpose? Is she intentionally trying to accomplish a goal? I would say, "Certainly not." There is communication, but it is not consciously purposed communication as we humans tend to think of it.

Is this language?

This is perhaps not a simple question. Language has not been defined to the satisfaction of the great thinking minds of our time, or any past time for the matter. If you ask any random group of persons if they know what language is, they'll surely say, "Yes, of course we do." and their ideas of language will pretty much be the same. If you ask a group of philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and linguists the same question, or even a group of any one of them, you will create a furiously buzzing hive of contention.

If we insist on separating things clearly and rigidly into those that are language and those that are not, I would say that no, bee dance is not language. That is particularly clear if we see language as something specific to the human animal. If we choose to view language as a rather gradually evolved system of behavior, on the other hand, I would argue that the bee dance might be admitted to the language club on the earliest and simplest level. I would also suggest that this is the most fruitful direction to take in the attempt to define language.

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