In 1973, Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize for discovering the meaning of the “waggle dance”. The waggle dance is a bee’s way of communicating to other bees that it has found a new nectar source near them. The bee dances to the designated “dance floor”.
Honey bees aren't waggling willy-nilly, though. Certain aspects of the dance communicate details about the nectar source. How long the dance lasts corresponds with the distance to the source, for instance, and the angle of the bee's dancing body relative to the sun indicates the direction of the source.
However, there’s just one problem. Each bee tells of the same nectar source but dances differently. That is what Margaret Couvillon and Roger Schürch, both researchers at Virginia Tech, noticed.
The husband-and-wife duo decided to develop their own "distance-duration calibration system" that factored in "noise," or variation between bees who visit the same source. They discovered that that bee-to-bee variation is so high, it renders the location and sub-species of the bee biologically irrelevant. That made it possible for them to create a universal calibration for decoding waggle dances.
Why would humans want to understand bees, anyway? To start, the universal calibration makes it possible for researchers worldwide to understand where bees are collecting food. This knowledge can inform bee-friendly planting practices.
Understanding waggle dances also makes it possible to use bees as a way to monitor the environment, Couvillon said in a press release.
"The bees can tell us in high spatial and temporal resolution where forage is available and at what times of the year," she said. "So, if you want to build a mall for example, we would know if prime pollinator habitat would be destroyed. And, where bees forage, other species forage as well. Conservation efforts can follow."
More at Curiosity.
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