A photograph showing bees flying.

A newfound intricate type of communication has been identified in bees

Bees have long been known for their highly organized social structures and intricate communication methods, such as the famous "waggle dance." However, recent research has uncovered an even more sophisticated form of communication in these buzzing insects. This breakthrough discovery sheds new light on the complexity and adaptability of bee behavior, and highlights the importance of social learning and culture in the animal kingdom.


Learning and culture play a crucial role in facilitating complex communication outside of human beings, according to recent research. The sharing of knowledge across generations is a defining characteristic of culture, which enables animals to adapt quickly to their changing surroundings. While early social learning has been observed in various species, such as humans, naked mole rats, and fledgling songbirds, scientists have now documented this phenomenon in insects as well.

The University of California San Diego’s Professor James Nieh and his team, publishing in Science, discovered that social learning is fundamental for honey bees‘ “waggle dance,” which communicates the location of essential resources to their nestmates through an intricate series of movements. This highly organized and social insect uses the waggle dance to communicate the location of food sources by circling around in figure-eight patterns while waggling their bodies during the central part of the dance. The bees translate visual information from their environment and the position of the sun into distance, direction, and quality of the resource.

Bee waggle dance communication process

Nieh and his colleagues conducted experiments to examine the details of the waggle dance communication process. They created colonies of young bees that had never observed or followed experienced dancers before dancing. These bees produced more disordered dances with larger waggle angle divergence errors and incorrect distance encoding. In contrast, bees that shadowed other dances did not suffer from these problems.


Like humans, early exposure to language development is essential for bees to acquire encoded social cues and remain with them for life. Bees that did not learn the correct waggle dance early on could improve by watching and practicing, but they could never encode distance correctly. As a result, they developed a new dialect that they maintained for the rest of their lives.

Impact: the environment

Following their recent discoveries, Nieh and his research team are curious about the impact of the environment on the way bees communicate with one another. They seek to investigate the influence of the surroundings on bee language and how it shapes their communication patterns. They also plan to investigate whether older and more experienced bees in a colony, who are familiar with the distribution of food sources in their surroundings, can pass on an optimized dialect to the next generation.

The researchers are also concerned that external threats, such as the use of pesticides, could disrupt this early language learning. Multiple studies, including those conducted by Nieh and his collaborators, have demonstrated the harmful effects of pesticides on bee cognition and learning. This means that if bees are exposed to pesticides, it could harm their capacity to learn and communicate effectively, which may change how they pass on this knowledge to the next generation within their colony.


“We are aware that bees are highly intelligent and capable of remarkable achievements,” said Nieh. “Research has shown that pesticides can harm honeybee cognition and learning, potentially affecting their ability to learn how to communicate and even reshaping how this communication is passed down to the next generation in a colony.”

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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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