The honey bee dance, also known as the honey bee waggle dance, is one of the most amazing things found in nature. To understand why it is so important, you need to appreciate how much we depend on the honey bee, how complex its hive behavior is, the specialization of tasks, and the ways in which a honey bee is really part of a superorganism that is greater than any individual member. Without the parent hive, death is certain.
We’ll get to the waggle dance in a moment. First, some background: I’m studying honey bees and the honey bee dance for a few reasons. I became fascinated with them about ten years ago after learning that almost the entire global food supply is built on the back of the honey bee pollination. Were honey bees to go extinct, or fail in sufficient numbers, mankind would be reduced to a diet of very poor quality bread and water within three to five years as the foundation fell out from under us. Their demise would create a global humanitarian and economic catastrophe on par with the Great Depression, as well as take down blue chip giants like General Mills and Kellogg’s.
(True story: This knowledge, and my obsession with telling everyone about it back then, led to some unexpected outcomes – such as Aaron and I spontaneously yelling at the television screen in the office when we were watching the 2008 Presidential debates and were still undecided about whom to support. Then-candidate John McCain began going on about how the government was wasting money on things like studying honeybees, mocking the apparent foolishness of it. We both started screaming, “They are dying! We are all doomed if we don’t figure it out! This is cheap compared to the consequences if we don’t fix it it now!” I’m sure it looked ridiculous that we were so passionate about honey bees if you didn’t understand that our entire civilized food chain is built on their humble little backs.)
[mainbodyad]My interest was piqued again when, within a few days of putting flowers outside, two fat bumble bees began to show up and spend quite a bit of time working the blooms; in the process, pollinating the plants. It was like clockwork. They went flower to flower, methodically entering and removing pollin, ignoring the roses and focusing on the pansies. I started catching myself watching them until they had finished their work, mesmerized by their efficiency and singularity of purpose.
You should study honey bees not only due to our dependence upon them, but because honey bee hive behavior provides a wide range of models that might be applied to life or business, from caste systems to efficient manufacturing practices.
Honey Bees Are Examples of Economic Specialization
Long before Adam Smith and his famous pin factory, bees had developed a highly specialized work force with individual bees assigned specific tasks.
Here are some examples:
- There are mortuary bees that remove dead larvae and bees from the hive, freeing space and reducing disease.
- There are fanning bees who use water (brought in by water carrier bees) to create an internal air conditioning system that keeps the heat temperature of the hive at comfortable levels.
- There are propolizing bees who go around sealing the hive with a resin of propolis to keep air flow directed and good, as well as adding antibacterial and antifungal properties.
- There are honeycomb building bees who take wax from the worker bees and build the honeycomb.
- There are pollen packing bees who pack honeycomb cells and mix the pollen with a small amount of honey so the pollen won’t go bad.
- There is the queen bee, who lays eggs to increase the size of the colony.
- There are queen attendant bees who feed, care for, and groom the queen, as well as distribute a pheromone the queen produces to the rest of the hive for them to know that all is well.
- There are “virgin queens” who are destined to become future queens when the hive splits off. When one hatches, it goes into predator mode and systematically hunts down the other virgin queens to assassinate them.
- There are drone bees (males) who fertilize the queen’s eggs.
- There are drone feeding bees who get food for the drones.
- There are honey sealing bees who top off dehydrated honey to keep it safe.
- There are wax production bees who build wax cells, repair broken cells, and arrange storage.
- There are nurse bees who feed larvae worker jelly and advanced nurse bees who feed a special royal jelly to create a queen.
- There are cleaning bees who sweep out brood cells, which the queen will inspect. If she does not give the go-ahead, they have to clean it again until it is up to her standards.
- There are worker bees who go out into the world to locate and bring back pollen.
- There are guard bees who protect the hive.
Some of these jobs depend on age. For example, according to Today I Found Out:
Honey bees share out jobs based on their age. For instance, worker bees that are 1-2 days old spend their time cleaning cells, starting with the one they were born in, as well as keeping the brood warm; from 3-5 days old, they feed older larvae; from 6-11 days old, they feed the youngest larvae; from 12-17 days old, they produce wax, build combs, carry food, and perform undertaker duties; from 18-21 days old, they get guard duty, protecting the hive entrance; from 22 days on until their death at around 40-45 days, they get to fly from the hive collecting pollen, nectar, water, pollinating plants, and things of this nature.
The Famous Honey Bee Dance
The famous honey bee dance, or the waggle dance, is really an advanced form of mathematics distilled into communication that requires no speech. The fact that a simple bee is capable of what you are about to see in this video is beyond amazing. You have to watch this. You want to watch this. It’s incredible. It illustrates that effective communication does not require ambiguity. It is short, to the point, and focuses on substance.
I’m in the middle of my studies right now, working on a few personal essays about the lessons I can learn from studying honey bees; how I can apply them to my businesses, the danger of reliance upon on a single organism to support the entire global food supply, etc., etc. This video was so interesting, though, I had to share it.
Now, I’m in the process of studying the different types of honey produced by honey bees, and how the flavor profile is very different, based on the flowers used to create it. Thus far, I’m partial to the common clover honey produced in the Dakotas here in the United States, but I have a lot more to try.
Oh, and obligatory post to my honey lemon bee hive cake that I love making during the spring and summer … Seriously, look at it … it is delicious! I might have to make another one sometime next week if I have the time.
Fun fact: A honey bee produces 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. When you add a teaspoon of honey to your tea, you are literally reaping the benefits of the life savings of a dozen bees, who collectively had to fly 213 miles and visit 7,752 flowers to produce it for you.