Honeybee

A female honeybee foraging for nectar and pollen on a globe amaranth-- check out the pollen stored in baskets on the worker's hind legs. She'll return to the hive and dance the location of this flower to her sisters. Photo courtesy of the wonderful Jerome Eno.

There are so many great things to see at the Schuylkill Center: a cool grive of shady pine trees, turtles sunbathing on the edges of their pond homes, monarch butterflies migrating across goldenrod fields, chickadees at our bird feeders, even ruins of our Roxborough farming ancestors from long ago.

But arguably the most popular thing to see at the Center is our beehive. People make a, well, beeline to the exhibit in our nature museum, where a wooden door hides a glassed-in observation hive where you can see thousands of honeybees conducting their extraordinary lives right in front of you. And they're behind glass, so you are never stung.

It is an amazing story, one that I’ll begin sharing this week and extend into next. Next week, we’ll talk about how busy bees really are-- the answer will surprise you. But this week, we’ll talk about how bees shake their butts to give each other critically important messages.

That’s right. When you open the wooden door, the first thing you might notice is the wall of bees in constant motion. But there is a method to the motion madness-- if you look closely at a few of the bees, you will see that they are shaking their abdomens, their back ends, in a straight line along the hive, then quickly circling back to where they started, then shake again, and then again, varying their turns in left-right fashion so they are dancing a figure 8 on the wall of the hive. And a posse of sister bees-- the workers are all females, by the way-- are tapping their antenna on her, witnessing her dance.

Welcome to the waggle dance, the most important mode of bee communication. The dancer is a foraging bee, who has been out in the Schuylkill Center’s fields or perhaps even in your own Roxborough yard, has found a good nectar and pollen source, and has brought those foods back to the hive. She needs to tell her sisters where the food is so they can visit it too, and bring it back to store in cells. They transform the nectar into honey, and the pollen they eat straight up as protein.

So to tell others where the flowers are, she shakes her booty in a straight line, the length of the line communicating the distance from the hive other bees need to fly. The longer the line, the farther the foraging site. Then, the angle that her straight line dance deviates from straight up is the angle other bees needs to fly from the sun. Dance straight up the hive: fly towards the sun. Straight down the hive: fly away from the sun. The hive wall suddenly becomes a compass with the dancer serving as the needle.

Meanwhile, her sisters are sampling her fare, tasting the pollen stuck on her thorax’s hairs, tasting samples of the nectar she is giving away. And off the other workers go.

When you open the hive’s door, you might find multiple bees dancing in different angles. It’s high summer, with flowers in bloom in all directions from the hive-- our butterfly meadow, for example, is directly southwest of the hive only a couple of hundred yards away, but a great milkweed meadow lies northeast and twice as far. Lankenau High School’s flower garden is a straight shot north, further still. So different dancers have found different floral sources.

You might also see one bee grab another and vibrate it-- shaking the recipient out of its lethargy-- one telling the other that a worker is dancing nearby and you better pay attention. There's also a tremble dance, which bees do when no one is paying attention to their dance. “Watch me!” they tremble, then go into their waggle dance. Finally, there is a crazy-spastic dance that simply says “the food is right outside the hive door, so close you can’t miss it, so close I’m not even telling you the direction. Go now!”

When you open the hive door, you’ll also notice some of the honeycomb is covered by waxy lids-- these are where baby bees are being born. When a bee hatches as an adult, she goes through a series of jobs, starting off by cleaning the hive and ending up with foraging in the great outdoors. So when you see the dancers, these are the oldest of the honeybees in the hive (save for the queen), the oldest being all of only 30 days old. That’s it. Next week I’ll share the sequence of jobs in a hive, and why bees will never multitask.

When I opened the door two weeks ago, I surprised myself by instantly finding the queen, clearly a bigger bee, her abdomen much larger and much smoother than her daughters. She was surrounded by her entourage, all grooming and feeding her while she went about her chore of laying thousands of eggs. Typically, the queen is hard to find in her dense ball of handlers, but that day I spied her instantly as she dutifully walked across the comb, inserting her abdomen into first this cell, then the next, then the next, laying one egg in each, the workers getting out of the way of her grace. And she calmly ignored the chaos of frenzied bees dancing around her.

Come to the Schuylkill Center’s observation hive and open that wooden door. While you might not find the queen-- that is a challenge-- you will unquestionably see bees dancing in all directions, instant messaging their sisters through one of nature’s most miraculous communication devices, the waggle dance.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuyulkillcenter.org. Some information for this essay came from Mark L. Winston’s wonderful book, "Bee Time."

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