Tag Archives: Karl von Frisch

Going the distance

I’m going to continue with a topic related to the waggle dance this week.

This is partly so I can write about the science of how bees measure distance to a food source.

But it’s also to encourage those who didn’t read the waggle dance post to visit it. Weirdly it was only read by about 50% of the usual Friday/weekend readership and I suspect (from a couple of emails I received) that the weekly post to subscribers ended up in spam folders 1.

If you remember, the duration of the waggle phase of the dance – the straight-line abdomen-wiggling sashay across the ‘dance floor’ – indicates the distance from the nest to the desirable food source 2. The vigour of the wiggle indicates the quality of the source.

How do bees measure distance?

Karl von Frisch, the first to decode the waggle dance, favoured the so-called ‘energy hypothesis’. In this, the distance to a food source was determined by the amount of energy used on the outbound flight.

Does that seem logical?

Foragers forage randomly, but usually return directly

If correct, foragers would only be able to determine the energy used after their second trip to a food source. This presumes their first trip was longer as they searched the environment for something worth dancing about 3.

This would be an easy thing to test, though I’m not sure it was ever investigated 4.

As it happens, far better brains determined that the energy hypothesis was probably incorrect. Many of these studies explored how gravity influences the distances reported by dancing foragers.

Going up!

Bees use more energy when flying up. For example, when flying from ground level to the top of a tall building, when compared to level flight. Similarly, they use more energy flying if they have small weights attached to them 5.

A series of experiments, nicely reviewed by Harald Esch and John Burns 6, failed to provide good support for the energy hypothesis. There were lots of these studies, involving steep mountains, tall buildings or balloons, between the 1950’s and mid-80’s.

Interesting science, and no doubt it was a lot of fun doing the experiments.

For example, bees flying to a sugar feeder situated on top of a tall building dance to ‘report’ the same distance as bees from the same hive flying to a feeder at ground level adjacent to the same building.

Similarly, foragers loaded with weights do not overestimate the distance to a food source, as would be expected if the energy expended to reach it was being measured 7.

Interesting and entertaining science certainly, but none of it providing compelling support for the energy hypothesis

It’s notable that there is a rather telling sentence from the Esch & Burns review that states “While reading the original papers, one gains the impression that evidence supporting the energy hypothesis was favored over arguments against it”.


Splash landing

Although Von Frisch was a supporter of the energy hypothesis 8 he also published a study that provided evidence for our current understanding of how bees measure distance.

Bees generally don’t like flying long distances over water. Von Frisch provided two equidistant nectar sources, one of which was situated on the other side of a lake.

Bees flying over calm water underestimate distances

On very calm days the bees that flew across the lake under-reported the distance to the feeder. This underestimate was by 20-25% when compared to bees flying to an equidistant feeder overland.

Von Frisch commented “the bee’s estimation of distance is not determined through optical examination of the surface beneath her”.

He assumed that the mirror-like water surface provided no optical input as it contained no visual ‘clues’. After all, one calm patch of water looks much like any other. Von Frisch used this as an argument for the energy hypothesis.

He also noted that the bees generally flew very low over the water surface, often so low that they drowned 🙁

Perhaps these bees were flying dangerously low to try and find optical clues.

Such as their height above the surface?

Or perhaps the distance travelled?

Going with the flow

Having debunked the energy hypothesis, Esch & Burns proposed instead the optic flow hypothesis. This states that “foragers use the retinal image flow of ground motion to gauge feeder distance”.

Imagine optic flow as tripping a little odometer in the bee brain that records distance as her eyes observe the environment flashing past during flight. The clever thing about that is that the environment is variable. It’s not like counting off regularly spaced telegraph poles from a train window.

When flying, environmental objects that are nearby will move across her vision much faster than distant objects. Bees don’t have stereo vision, but instead use this speed of image motion to infer range.

Optic flow – the arrow size indicates the speed with which the object apparently moves, and hence its range

Esch & Burns returned again to tall buildings to provide supporting evidence for their optic flow hypothesis. They trained bees to fly between two tall buildings with 228 metres separating the hive and the feeder 9.

Returning foragers reported that the food source was only 125 metres away.

However, the bees didn’t make a direct flight. Instead they flew at altitude for 30-50 metres, descended to fly much lower, then ascended again to approach the feeder again at altitude.

Esch & Burns experiment to support the optic flow hypothesis

The interpretation here was that the high altitude flight provided insufficient optic flow to measure distance. The bees descend to get the visual input needed to judge distance, but it’s only for part of the flight … hence leading to under-reporting the distance separating the hive and feeder.

Tunnel vision

Jurgen Tautz 10 and colleagues trained bees to forage in a short, narrow tunnel 11. This elegant experiment provided compelling support for the optic flow hypothesis.

The tunnel was ~6 m long and with a cross sectional area of ~200 cm2 – big enough for a bee to fly along, but sufficiently narrow so that the bee would be closer to the ‘walls’ than in normal free flight. The walls and floor of the tunnel had a random visual texture. Only the end of the tunnel facing the hive was open.

The tunnel experiment.

These studies were conducted when the terms round and waggle were used to distinguish the dance induced by food sources <50 m and >50 m respectively from the hive 12. Rather than emphasise the shape of the dance I’ll just describe it as a >50 m or <50 m waggle dance.

‘Tunneling’ bees misreport distances

In the first tunnel experiment (1) the feeder was 35 m from the hive. 85% of dances indicated the feeder was <50 m away. However, when the feeder was moved to the opposite end of the tunnel (2) – still only 41 m from the hive – 90% of the dances indicated the feeder was >50 m away.

To test how the random pattern influenced the perceived distance the scientists used a third tunnel (3) lined with lengthwise stripes. In this instance – despite the feeder position being unchanged from experiment 2 – 90% of the dances indicated the feeder was <50 m away.

The stripes were predicted to ‘work’ in the same way as the smooth lake surface, providing no visual clues.

In the fourth experiment (4) the feeder was 6 m along a randomly patterned tunnel, which was placed just 6 m from the hive. Over 87% of dances indicated that the feeder was >50 m away.

Interpreting the waggle run

In open flight 13 there is usually an excellent correlation between the duration of the waggle run and the distance to a feeder (see the graph below 14 ). By extrapolation, the bees in experiments 2 and 4 ‘thought’ they had flown 230 m and 184 m respectively. In reality they had flown only 41 m and 12 m in these experiments.

Determining distances from waggle dance observation

How could the bees get it so wrong?

Increased optic flow

Tunnel-traversing bees fly just a few centimeters away from the visible ‘environment’.

As a consequence, at the same flight speed, they experience greater optic flow.

If, instead of driving around in your lumbering old van, you pack your hive tool in a Caterham 7 for the trip to the apiary you’d be well aware of what I mean.

Caterham 7 … check out that optic flow … then make another trip to collect the smoker

30 mph in a Toyota Hilux feels very much slower than 30 mph in a Caterham 7. This is largely because visual reference points, like the broken white lines between lanes in the road, appear in and disappear from your field of view much faster … because you’re much closer to them.

Because the tunnel dimensions were known it was possible to calculate the calibration of the bee’s odometer. Classically this would be defined in terms of metres of distance flown generating a particular waggle run length or duration.

These tunnel studies demonstrate that distance flown is not what calibrates the odometer. Instead it’s quantified indirectly in terms of the image motion experienced by the eye. Since environments vary the way to express this is the amount of angular image motion that generates a given duration of waggle.

And, using some mathematical trickery we don’t need to bother with 15, it turns out that this angular motion is only dependent upon distance flown, not the speed of flight.

This is important. Headwinds or tailwinds could change the speed of flight, but not the distance flown 16.

It’s all relative

It’s worth emphasising that the dance followers in experiments 2 (above) should still find the feeder.

The waggle dance would ‘instruct’ them to fly 230 m at the bearing indicated and they’d experience the same visual clues en route.

This means that they should still enter the narrow tunnel and experience increased optic flow because of the encroaching walls. But they’d be experiencing the same optic flow the initial dancing bee had experienced, so would not attempt to fly further down the tunnel.

This means that the optic flow experienced is context dependent. It is related to the environment the bees are foraging in.

This makes sense as the dancing bees and dance followers all occupy the same environment.

How do we know this? 17

Changing the environment

If we change the environment the dance followers search at the wrong distance.

I qualified the statement above when I said that the dance followers should still enter the tunnel and find the feeder.

Actually, most recruits will miss the tunnel entrance – remember it’s smaller that a sheet of A5 paper. At 35 m distance a bee would have to get the bearing correct to about 0.16° to enter the tunnel 18.

So the bees that do not enter the tunnel experience a different environment.

Where do they search for the feeder?

They search at the distance indicated by the waggle duration … so bees that missed the tunnel entrance in experiment 2 (above) would have searched for the feeder 230 m from the hive. Similarly, the dance followers in experiment 4 would have searched 184 m away 19

Context dependent dance calibration

And, finally, the calibration of the odometer depends upon the environment.

Odometer calibration depends upon the environment

If the environment experienced by the dancing bee en route to the feeder in experiments 2 and 4 is different, then it generates a different relationship between waggle run duration and distance.

For example, if one feeder was across a closely mown lawn and the other was across dense shrubby woodland, they would each generate a unique optic flow, so changing the image motion experienced, and hence the waggle run generated.

In the diagram above, you shouldn’t use dance calibration for bees trained to direction A to determine the distance bees going in direction B would forage.


Optic flow, waggle dancing and implications for practical beekeeping

None 😉

At least, none that I can think of.

A Caterham 7 isn’t an ideal car for a beekeeper but would be a lot of fun to help you understand optic flow 😉

Most of us keep our bees in mixed environments. Your apiary isn’t situated with a cliff edge on one side and an unbroken prairie on the other. Since the environment is mixed, the waggle dance calibration is not going to be wildly different, whichever way the bees fly off in. You can therefore use an approximate figure of 1 second per kilometre to estimate the the distance at which your bees are foraging, irrespective of the direction they go.


Most of the referenced studies are at least two decades old. Honey bees have remained a fertile research tool for neurobiologists. Our understanding of honey bee vision continues to improve. However, I cannot discuss any of these more recent studies with reference to optic flow. Anyway, just because they’re old doesn’t make the experiments any less elegant or interesting 🙂


The waggle dance

Ask a non-beekeeper what they know about bees and you’ll probably get answers that involve honey or stings.

Press them a little bit more about what they know about other than honey and stings and some will mention the ‘waggle dance’. 

Karl von Frisch

That the waggle dance is such a well-known feature of honey bee biology is probably explained by two (related) things; it involves a relatively complex form of communication in a non-human animal, and because Karl von Frisch – the scientist who decoded the waggle dance – received the Nobel Prize 1 for his studies in 1973.

Von Frisch did not discover the waggle dance. Nicholas Unhoch described the dance at least a century before Von Frisch decoded the movement, and Ernst Spitzner – 35 years earlier still – observed dancing bees and suggested they were communicating odours of food resources available in the environment.

Inevitably, Aristotle also made a contribution. He described flower constancy 2 and suggested that foragers could communicate this to other bees.

Language and communication are important. The development of language in early humans almost certainly contributed to the evolution of our culture, society and technology. Communication in non-human animals, from the chirping of grasshoppers to the singing of whales, is of interest to scientists and non-scientists alike.

It is therefore unsurprising that the ‘dance language’ of honey bees is also of great interest. Although not a ‘language’ in the true sense of the word, Von Frisch described the symbolic language of bees as “the most astounding example of non-primate communication that we know” over 50 years ago. This still applies.

The waggle dance

The waggle dance usually takes place in the dark on the vertical face of a comb in the brood nest, usually close to the nest entrance. The dance is performed by a successful forager i.e. one that has located a good source of pollen, nectar or water, and provides information on the presence, the quality, identity, direction and distance of the source, so enabling nest-mates to find and exploit it.

The dance consists of two phases:

  1. The figure of eight-shaped ‘return phase’ in which the bee circles back, alternately clockwise and anticlockwise, to the start of …
  2. The ‘waggle phase’, which is a short linear run in which the dancer vigorously waggles her abdomen from side to side.

The direction of the food source is indicated by the angle of the waggle phase from gravity i.e. a vertical line down the face of the comb. This angle (α in the figure below) indicates the bearing from the direction of the sun that needs to be followed to reach the food source. 

For example, if the dancer performs a waggle phase vertically down the face of the comb, the food source must be opposite the current position of the sun.

The waggle dance

The distance information is conveyed by the duration of the waggle phase. The longer this run is, the more distant the source. A run of 1 second duration indicates the food source is about 1 kilometre away.

The quality of the food source is indicated by the vigour of the waggling during the waggle phase and the speed with which the return phase is conducted. 

Surely it can’t be that simple?

Yes, it can.

What I’ve described above allows you to interpret the waggle dance sufficiently well to know where your bees are foraging.

Next time you lift a frame from a hive and see a dancing bee, circling around in a little cleared ‘dance floor’ surrounded by a group of attentive workers, try and decode the dance.

Remember that the dance is performed with relation to gravity in the darkened hive. You’re looking to identify the angle from a vertical line up the face of the brood comb to determine the direction from the sun.

Time a few waggle phases (one elephant, two elephants etc.) and you’ll know how far away the food source is.

Really, it’s that simple?

Of course not 😉

The waggle dance was decoded more than half a century ago and remains an active subject for researchers interested in animal communication.

What you’ll miss in your observations is an indication of the type of nectar or pollen resource that the dancing bee is communicating. The dancing worker carries the odour of the food source and may also regurgitate nectar, presumably helping those ‘watching’ (remember, it’s dark … nothing to see here!) determine the type of resource to look for when they leave the hive.

You will also be unable to detect the pulsed thoracic vibrations that the dancing bee produces. These are also indicators of the quality of the food source; better (e.g. higher sucrose content) resources elicit increased pulse duration, velocity amplitude and duty cycle, though the number of pulses is related to the duration of the waggle phase, and so is another potential indicator of distance.

Inevitably, there are also pheromones involved.

There always are 😉

The dancing bee produces two alkanes, tricosane and pentacosane, and two alkenes, Z-(9)-tricosene and Z-(9)-pentacosene. These appear to stimulate foraging activity 3.

But it’s cloudy … or rain stops play … or nighttime

What happens to dancing bees if foraging is interrupted, for example by poor weather or night? 

The dancing bee continues to change the angle of the waggle phase as the sun moves across the sky. This means that a dancing bee will correctly signal the direction to the food source, even if they have not left the hive for several hours.

During their initial orientation flights they learn the sun’s azimuth as a function of the time of day, and use this to compensate for the sun’s time-dependent movement.

Some bees even dance during the night, in which case the watching workers must presumably make their own compensations for the time that has elapsed since the dance 4.

And what happens if the sun is obscured … by clouds, or buildings or dense woodland? How can those directions be followed?

Under these circumstances the foraging bee detects the position of the sun by the pattern of polarised light in the sky. 

Scout bees

The waggle dance is also performed by scout bees on the surface of a bivouacked swarm. In this instance it is used to communicate the quality, direction and distance of a new potential nest site. 

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

The intended audience in this instance are other scout bees, rather than the general forager population 5. These scouts use a quorum decision making process to determine the ‘best’ nest site in the area to which the bivouacked swarm eventually relocates.

The shape of the bivouac often lacks a true vertical surface. However, since it’s in the open the dancing bees can orientate the waggle run directly with relation to the sun’s direction, rather than to gravity.

Under experimental conditions the dancing bee can communicate the presence and quality of a food source on a horizontal comb, but – with no reference to gravity – all directional information is lost 6.

The round dance

The duration of the waggle phase is related to the distance from the nest to the food source. Therefore the recognisable waggle dance tends to get difficult to interpret for sources very close to the nest.

It used to be thought that there was a distinct directionless dance (the ’round dance’) for these nearby i.e. 10-40 metres, food sources. However, more recent study 7 suggests that dancers were able to convey both distance and direction information irrespective of the separation of nest and food source. This indicates that bees have just one type of dance for forager recruitment, the waggle dance.

Do all bees communicate using a waggle dance?

There are a very large number of bee species. In the UK alone there are 270 species, 250 of which are solitary.

There’s a clue.

Solitary bees are like me at a disco … they have no one to dance with 🙁

I’ll cut to the chase to help you erase that vision.

The only bees that use the waggle dance are honey bees. These all belong to the genus Apis.

They include our honey bee, the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), together with a further seven species:

  1. Black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis)
  2. Red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea)
  3. Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata)
  4. Himalayan giant honey bee (Apis laboriosa
  5. Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana)
  6. Koschevnikov’s honey bee (Apis koschevnikovi)
  7. Philippine honey bee (Apis nigrocincta)

Dancing and evolution

Dwarf honey bees nest in the open on a branch and dance on the horizontal surface of the nest. The waggle run is orientated ‘towards’ the food source. Apis dorsata is also an open-nesting bee, but forms large vertically-hanging combs. It dances relative to gravity, and indicates the direction by the angle of the waggle run in the same way that A. mellifera does.

The cavity nesting bees, A. cerana, A. mellifera, A. koschevnikovi, and A. nigrocinta produce the most developed form of the dance.

The dances of A. mellifera and A. cerana are sufficiently similar that they can follow and decode the dance of the other.

The complexity of the nest site and the waggle dance reflects the evolution of these bee species. The earliest to evolve (i.e. the most primitive), A. andreniformis and florea, have the simplest nests and the most basic waggle dance. In contrast, the cavity nesting species evolved most recently, form the most complex brood nests and have the most derived waggle dance.

When and why did the waggle dance evolve?

Assuming that the waggle dance did not independently evolve (there’s no evidence it did, and ample evidence due to its similarity between species that it evolved only once) it must have first appeared at least 20 million years ago, when extant honey bee species diverged during the early Miocene.

The ‘why’ it evolved is a bit more difficult to address.

Behavioural changes often arise in response to the environment in which a species evolves.

Bipedalism in non-human primates (like the australopithecines) is hypothesised to have evolved in part due to a reduction in forest cover and the increase in savannah. Apes had to walk further between clumps of trees and bipedalism offered greater travel efficiency.

Perhaps the waggle dance evolved to exploit a particular type or distribution of food reserves?

In this regard it is interesting that the ‘benefit’ of waggle dance communication varies through the season.

If you turn a hive on its side the combs are horizontal 8. Under these conditions the dancing bees can communicate the presence and quality of a food source. However, they cannot communicate its location (either direction or distance).

No directional or distance information is now available

In landmark studies Sherman and Visscher 9 showed that, at certain periods during the season, the absence of this positional information did not affect the weight gain by the hive i.e. the foraging efficiency of the colony.

They concluded that during these periods forage must be sufficiently abundant that simply stimulating foraging was sufficient. Remember those alkanes and alkenes produced by dancing bees that do exactly that?

Tropical habitats

This observation, and some elegant experimental and modelling studies, suggest that dancing is beneficial when food resources are: 

  • sparsely distributed – therefore difficult (and energetically unfavourable) to find by individual scouting
  • clustered or short-lived resources – when it’s gone, it’s gone
  • distributed with high species richness – if there’s a huge range of flowers, which are the most energetically rewarding (sugar-rich) to collect nectar from?

One of the experimental studies that contributed to these conclusions (though there’s still controversy in this area) was the demonstration that waggle dancing was beneficial in a tropical habitat, but not in two temperate habitats. This makes sense, as food resources have different spatiotemporal distribution in these habitats. Tropical habitats are characterised by clustered and short-lived resources.

Therefore the suggestion is that the waggle dance of Apis species evolved, presumable early in the speciation of the genus, in a tropical region where food resources were patchily distributed, available for only limited period and present alongside a wide variety of other (less good) choices.

For example, like individual trees flowering in a forest …

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is evidence that bees that dance are able to successfully exploit food resources further away than would otherwise be expected from their body size.

This also makes sense.

It’s much less risky flying off over the horizon if you know there’s something to collect once you get there 10.


If you arrived here from my Twitter feed (@The_Apiarist) you’ll have seen the tweet started with the words “Dance like nobody’s watching”, words that are often attributed to Mark Twain. 

The full quote is something like “Dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth”.

Pretty sound advice.

But it’s not by Mark Twain. It’s actually from a country music song by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh. This was first released on the Don Williams album Traces in 1987. So only about 90 years out 😉