Dancing In The Dark

Cuban-Dance-2

At the LDKA apiary last Saturday (no, that’s not us at the apiary in the picture – more about that later!), the highlight of “going through” the hives with our tutor Penny Robertson, was seeing two foragers performing vigorous “waggle-dances” on the brood comb. As we watched this energetic ballet, a distant memory popped into my mind…

In 1999, I went on a charity-bike ride to Cuba. One night, in the (aptly-named, in my opinion) city of Colón in Matanzas, I was walking back to the team hotel in the pitch dark, thanks to a power-cut. As I stepped slowly past the large, arched, peeling windows of a row of Spanish colonial houses, I heard a muffled footfall and caught sight of a movement in the shadows inside one of the buildings.

I halted, as much apprehensive as inquisitive, and glimpsed through the open window a sight which was quite breath-taking – a family of four, two adults and two teenagers – dancing with silken elegance in the silent shadows….as if the music of their heartbeats, the welling of an unremembered rhythm, had risen like a tide and flooded their senses – so they danced anyway, through the dark, pin-drop silence of the power-cut.

Which brings us back to the bees’ “waggle-dance”: likewise a muted cha-cha, performed at home in total obscurity and with the participation of close family. Let me describe it to you, before suggesting a link which shows the “waggle-dance” and has a David Attenborough voice-over:  the “waggle-dance” is a hushed communication, with one bee dancing, at antenna’s length, from the circle of bees around her, like a lasses-only version of the Scottish reel “Dashing White Sergeant”, but performed without the lights on ! But over to that nice Mr. Attenborough for some visuals of:

The Waggle Dance

So the purpose of the “waggle-dance” is for the dancer to communicate the direction and distance from the hive of food sources.  Just like our own dances, the “waggle-dance” is conducted on a specific patch of comb. The returning forager dances to convey information about the nectar or pollen source which they have just visited by waggling their abdomens and moving on the comb, for the benefit of a small group of available foragers, who touch her with their antennae to gather information from her movements.

Looking at a bee “waggling” on the comb, the human brain understandably attempts to assign meaning in the optical plane. Close, but no cigar! Remember, in the bee-world inside the hive, all is dark, so visual communication is null and void. The actual meaning in the “waggle-dance” display is pulsed through vibration, as the dancer grips the comb and the signals resonate to her rapt audience. With the comb hanging downwards, as it does in nature, in its “waggle-dance” the bee encodes, relative to gravity, the distance and direction of the food source. The other bees absorb this pulsating intelligence, but by the time they are ready to fly from the hive to the feeding-zone, the instructions have been miraculously de-ciphered into a flight manual based on the orientation of their hive to the sun, specifically at that time of day. Amazing and accurate.

You may be one of the few fortunate souls on god’s green earth who has not been button-holed recently by a beekeeper complaining about how depressingly poor the last couple of years have been for bees. But in any case, you are probably aware of the severe pressure on bee-populations, of the trials and tribulations of the craft of beekeeping. But please take away from this monograph that, however tough it has seemed, there are still rewarding moments to be extracted, jewels of appreciation to be mined with a hive-tool – including the simple waggle of a single bee !

ps: For those wishing to delve deeper into the mysteries of the “waggle-dance” (and why foraging bees switch off their colour vision when flying back returning to their hive) I can recommend Jürgen Tautz’s “The Buzz About Bees – Biology Of A  Superorganism”.

pps: And for those who wish to see a drone “waggle-dancing”, (clue: plenty of noise, lights, music and purely recreational) – there’s always “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen in 1984.

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