Science Questions

How did the waggle dance evolve?

Sun, 17th May 2009

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Anon, probably somewhere in Scotland asked:

Hello. I was watching a programme on television the other day about bees and how they do a wee dance to tell the other bees where the flowers are. I was talking about this with my friend the other night and about evolution. Neither of us could think of a way that the bee dance could have evolved small steps, if you know what I mean. Could you shed any light on that for us please?


We put this first to Andy Barron, Lecturer in the Department of Brain Behaviour and Evolution at Macquarie University.

So how did the waggle dance evolve? When a forager bee has found good food, she comes back to the hive, she performs a waggle dance and these movements in the dance — very precisely and symbolically represent the direction and the distance to the food source. And then other bees are following that dancer and they read those Bee collecting pollen at the Del Mar fairgroundsdirectional-specific movements and then they head out of the hive and go and find the food. Now what we know is that performing the dance and reading the dance is entirely instinctive. So we have to infer that this whole complex, symbolic communication system is somehow programmed by the honeybee genome. Now how a genome programmes behaviour with this level of complexity I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t think anybody has any idea; but there’s nine honeybee species, and the dances of the dwarf honey bee:, Apis Florea - these are the most primitive honeybees — they have less complex directional information than the European Honeybee; the honeybee that we’re familiar with. Maybe after millions of years this alerting signal was refined to add more space-specific information and over time you get something of a dance and symbolic as the waggle dance. But again, look, as to how the bee genome and how the bee brain have been modified by the evolutionary process to give bees this dance language, really we still have absolutely no idea, but it’s a great question — it is an absolutely fantastic question.

We also asked Jurgen Tautz head of the Bee Group at the University of Wurzburg in Germany.

The recruitment of nest mates to food source is very important in all social insects. Most primitive we find this represented in bumblebees; where forager bumblebees, after returning to the nest, simply are just alarming their nest mates to give them the simple message: I’ve found something interesting to go for but there is no information whatsoever about the location. The next step then we find in stingless bees — so experienced bees which know where to go and non-experienced bees leave the nest together and they arrive at the desired location in groups. Then we find in the honeybees this dance language where bees inside the nest, tell their nest mates through this dancing movement about the geographical location. Between the stingless bee recruitment and the honeybee recruitment there’s really a big gap in evolution. The reason why I think that the dance language as you find in the honeybee has evolved and not like in bumblebees or stingless bees has also to do with the precision of the nest they are building. The combs make the surfaces on which the dance is performed and these combs are extremely regular and they hang absolutely perpendicular so the direction of gravity inside the nest can be used as a direction of reference. Bumble nests are very sloppy, and stingless bees’ nests, they are also not very regular so there would not have been the opportunity to evolve such a language in other closely-related species.


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The problem is that the bees that dance are the worker bees. They are infertile, so how does the dance evolve? The queen does not dance, and neither do the drones. The queen mates soon after hatching on one mating flight with 5-10 drones, all of which leave their sex organs behind in the mating process, fall from the sky, and die. The queen then returns to the hive, and never mates again. Bonnie, Tue, 29th Sep 2009

Bonnie, it does not matter if queens or drones dance or not, the point is that their genes pass on information about how to do so. The better the workers perform with this information (that includes the waggle dance), the better these genes will propagate. arnau, Sun, 31st Jan 2010

Why do unexplained complexities always get met with 'that's a great question' or 'that's very interesting, but no one knows'. I beg to differ, and scientifically: Maybe someone programmed the genome? I know all the secular humanists start to get ruffled at such 'religious' suggestions, but I am using no lesser reasoning or faith than Lamarckism, Darwinism or Neo-Darwinism. We never see any brand new information added to any genomes, only scrambling of existing information (mutations), which are almost always negative in their effect and represent a loss not a gaining. I would have to say that there was a transcendent informationer giver to the bees genome, as despite Neo-Darwinist remonstrations, purely naturalistic causes starting from infinite or finite causeless causes(with no intelligence allowed)simply cannot produce information or complexity. My conclusion would be a transcendent intelligent designer gave all bees the information in their genome and the ability to adapt within the limits of their kind. Terrell, Mon, 2nd Aug 2010

You are labouring under a common misunderstanding (wilfully or not) about the evolutionary process. The generation of mutations is random, most are harmful, but some are not. The selective regimes through which genomes are put through ensure that mutations are accumulated and propagated in the population NON randomly (on large population-wide scales). Just because we currently do not have a full scientiic understanding of every aspect of evolutionary processes, is in no way an opening for 'intelligent design'. Saying, 'a designer did it' cannot even begin to compete with an empirically demonstrated body of knowledge. Absence of knowledge is not failure, it is work in progress. Postulating some deity as an apparent solution to all scientific blanks is entirely unfounded and entirely incommensurable with scientific concepts. Keep it to the spiritual and religious symbolism, don't attempt to explain anything in tangible reality. Nat, Mon, 21st May 2012

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