Bees’ Methods of Communication

By A. O.

Bees’ Methods of Communication

“Exalted be God, the King, the Real. There is no deity but Him, Lord of the Noble Throne.” (Al-Mu’minun: 116)

Scientists have performed a great deal of research to determine how the order is maintained in the hive, in which tens of thousands of bees live. A large number of academic studies have been carried out to that end as well. One prominent expert and professor at the University of Munich, the Australian zoologist Karl von Frisch, has devoted an entire 350-page book to bee communication, The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees.

How Do Bees Communicate?

To find food, bees must usually search wide areas and fly long distances. When a bee finds a new source of food, it immediately returns to the hive to inform the other members of the colony. Shortly afterwards, other bees begin flying around the source.

Bees are deaf, and cannot therefore establish communications by means of sound. Nevertheless, they are able to communicate the location of a food source to the other members of the colony with no difficulty. The methods they employ are quite extraordinary.

Scientists studying how bees inform each other of the places they find made a most astonishing discovery. Bees “describe” the location of a distant place by dancing. All the information that other bees need to find the food source—its distance from the hive, its direction, productivity—is encoded in this dance.

Once it locates a new food source, the bee returns to the hive and starts repeating specific movements in such a way as to attract the other bees’ attention. All the information they need about the food source can be obtained from the bee’s general behavior. For instance, if a bee simply returns to the hive, deposits its load of collected pollen and flies off again, this means that the source that the bee used is either already known or else not very productive. At times when water is scarce, they’ll also use this dance to describe the location of water.

The Bee Dance

The bee dance takes two distinct forms, depending on the distance of the food source.

The form known as the “round dance,” encountered most frequently, doesn’t bother to indicate the food source’s distance and direction. It does, however, tell the workers that the source is closer than 15 meters (50 feet) from the nest. Having located a food source, the bee first gives nectar to the workers in the nest, and then begins her dance, repeatedly making small circles. The other bees then gather around the dancer. She reverses direction and turns around the other way every one or two revolutions, or even more often. This dance, which can last for a few seconds or up to minutes, consists of up to 20 reversals and is followed by another exchange of nectar between the dancer and the bees in the nest.

Eventually the dance comes to an end. The dancing bee flies off to look for another source of food. In one experiment, Karl von Frisch showed that of the 174 bees who made contact with the dancing bee, 155 found the food source within five minutes.

The bees perform their dances on the vertical comb, in the darkness of the hive—most important in helping us better understand bees’ flawless abilities to communicate. In the pitch dark, bees give the other workers around them all the information they could possibly need about the food source. Although their movements on the combs are performed in darkness, they are still correctly perceived by their fellows and immediately followed up.

In the same way that bees perform a round dance for food sources within 15 meters of the hive, they perform “transition” dances for sources from 25 to 100 meters (80 to 330 feet) away. They use the “waggle” dance, what’s also known as the “figure-eight dance,” to notify other bees of the distance, direction and quality of food sources further than 100 meters (330 feet) from their hive.

When the bees return to the hive from the food source, they perform this dance on top of the honeycombs. As the workers take their steps, they also shake their abdomens. The form of this characteristic movement closely resembles a figure-eight. In a typical dance, the bee moves in a straight line for a short distance, moving its body from side to side approximately 13 to 15 times a second.

By varying the angle between the waggling run and an imaginary line running straight up and down, the bee conveys the direction of the food source. If a line is drawn which connects the food source and the hive, and another line which connects the hive and the spot on the horizon immediately below the sun, then the angle formed by the two is observed to be the same as that of the angle in the waggle dance. Just like civil engineers, the bees are able to triangulate.

Throughout the oscillatory movement in the waggle dance, the bee’s abdomen is the most important organ. A buzzing sound is given off thanks to vibrations from the muscles and exoskeleton. At the end of each straight line, the bee turns in one direction and makes a semi-circular return to her starting point. She then moves forward again in a straight line, making a semi-circular return in the exact opposite direction. As with the round dance, the waggle dance ends with the dancer stopping and distributing food from its honey stomach to the workers around it. The bees watching the dance may sometimes produce a sound lasting from a tenth to two-tenths of a second. This causes the dancer to stop and exchange food with the buzzing bees. Both nectar and pollen gatherers dance in the same way.

The bees watching this dance are easily able to locate the food source. One feature that establishes distance is the dance tempo, measured by the number of turns every 15 seconds, and the duration of waggling and buzzing on every straight line. For more distant food sources, the dance tempo slows and speeds up for closer ones. The time spent in the straight run increases for more distant sources.

Throughout the dance, the other bees crowd around the one “dancing this description” and follow its every move. They also touch its waggling abdomen with their antennae. This movement is most important, because they perceive the vibrations produced by the dancer and thus establish the distance of the food source. In order to describe a distance of 250 meters (820 feet), for instance, the bee will shake its abdomen 5 times in 30 seconds. It has been observed that by means of these dances, bees are able to inform one another of food sources at distances of up to 9 to 10 kilometers (5 to 6 miles).

For bees, another essential piece of information is the quality of the food at the source. This they obtain thanks to the scent that has settled on the bee performing the dance.

In the light of the information thus communicated, it is an easy matter for the other bees to find the food source. The number of bees that gather at the source is directly proportionate to the number of bees performing the dance. If a single bee performs it, the whole hive does not go into action. First, a group of scouts leaves the hive. If that group also performs the dance on their return, then more bees head towards the target. The better the food source they find, the longer they dance and the more bees follow them. In this way the food gatherers’ attention is always focused on the most productive source.

In the event that the food source found is unproductive, the bees still dance—but they do so unwillingly, and for a shorter time. This is also reflected to the other bees in the hive, and those bees that gathered around the dancer soon disperse, and a new team leaves the hive in search of food.

Consider that the honeybees that perform the dance are just a few centimeters long, the same insects you encounter when you go outside, walk in your garden or sits out on a balcony. There’s an interesting contradiction here. People regard honeybees as ordinary, familiar insects, yet the phenomena we have seen so far can only be carried out with a very definite consciousness. Were you to ask human beings to give the same directions that the bee does by dancing, they would be nowhere near as successful. That’s because although human beings possess reason and consciousness, they lack the ability to perform such minute calculations without technical measuring equipment.

So who teaches bees this conscious behavior? They cannot learn it from other bees, and there is no training period in their brief lives. They come into the world already possessed of this knowledge, able to act upon it when the time comes. That applies to all the bees on Earth, who have been living on it for tens of millions of years.

We therefore find ourselves facing a major truth that no person of good conscience can possibly deny: God, the Creator of all living things, has flawlessly created honeybees and taught them such conscious behavior. As revealed in Surat Al-Nahl, they act in accordance with the inspiration of our Lord.

To fully comprehend the significance of the description that bees make by dancing, we need to consider their movements in the hive and their overall environment. In her book Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness, the evolutionist author Marian Stamp Dawkins discusses how the bees give these directions:

The problem the bees have is that they often dance on the inside of a dark hive where neither the food itself nor the sun is visible. Not only that, but they are dancing on a vertical comb when information has to be given to the other bees about which direction they should fly in the horizontal plane.

Although the bees giving the directions dance on a vertical surface, the bees going out to seek the food source will operate in a horizontal plane. In other words, the information about which direction they must take should actually be expressed in a horizontal plane. If the bees were to act according to directions given in a vertical plane, then they would fly straight upwards, and it would be totally impossible for them to find any food.

In her book, Dawkins continues:

The bees cannot, therefore, indicate the direction of food by simply pointing or dancing towards it. They translate the flight path from hive to food (which will eventually be taken relative to the sun) into a direction relative to gravity inside the hive and the other bees retranslate this back into instructions relative to the sun when they get outside. So if the food is to be found by flying directly into the sun, the dancer will dance so that she does the straight “waggle” run precisely vertically on the comb, whereas if the food is to be found by flying at an angle of 40 degrees to the west of the sun, she waggles 40 degrees to the left of straight vertical. She thus substitutes angle with respect to vertical for angle with respect to the sun and conveys, in the darkness of the hive, information to her companions as to the direction they should fly when they get out into the sunlight.

Consider: Bees fully understand the directions, even those are given in the dark and in a different plane, and always head straight towards their target. The movements made with respect to a vertical line established by the dancing bee are fully understood by the others, which are capable of calculating angles.

In light of this, Dawkins expresses her thoughts in these terms: The fact that they do this [calculating angles] correctly shows that bees do indeed convey information to each other.

In short, all honeybees are able to calculate angles. Dawkins interprets this as bees conveying information to each other. However, there are important questions that require an answer. How did bees discover this method of calculation? Is it possible for the bee, simply by looking at the Sun, to distinguish between vertical and horizontal, to add the angle to the direction it gives, and always to do so accurately? How did other bees gain the ability to interpret this? How did they first learn to use the Sun as a reference?

Obviously, bees cannot calculate planes and angles and other such mathematical functions on their own. There is only one explanation for all these complex abilities in bees. Bees are directed by a superior power, which belongs to God, Ruler of all the universe, Who gives bees all their sophisticated attributes.

– A Note by the Editor:

Allah the Almighty says in the Ever-Glorious Qur’an what means,

“Say: ‘Who is the Lord of the heavens and the earth?’ Say: ‘Allah.’ Say: ‘So why have you taken protectors apart from Him who possess no power to help or harm themselves?’ Say: ‘Are the blind and seeing equal? Or are darkness and light the same? Or have they assigned partners to Allah Who create as He creates so that all creating seems the same to them?’ Say: ‘Allah is the Creator of everything. He is the One, the All-Conquering.’” (Al-Ra`d: 16)


“He [Allah] hath created the heavens without supports that ye can see and hath cast into the earth firm hills, so that it quake not with you; and He hath dispersed therein all kinds of beasts. And We send down water from the sky and We cause (plants) of every goodly kind to grow therein. This is the Creation of Allah. Now show me that which those (ye worship) beside Him have created. Nay, but the wrongdoers are in error manifest!” (Luqman 31: 10-11)


“We shall show them Our portents on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth. Doth not thy Lord suffice since He is Witness over all things? How! Are they still in doubt about the meeting with their Lord? Lo! Is not He surrounding all things?” (Fussilat 41: 53-54)


A. O. is a Turkish writer and author.

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