What Is The Waggle Dance? An Essential Guide

A bee performing the waggle dance on a frame in the hive

Honey bees use sophisticated mechanisms of communication and navigation. A fascinating example of this is the waggle dance which demonstrates that these insects communicate with a unique type of sign language.

This guide answers the question what is a waggle dance. It reveals how bees share vital details about food sources and directions with their colony.

What is a waggle dance?

The waggle dance is a unique method of communication among female honey bees. Performed by foragers, it relays information about the location and richness of a food source.

The dance is a figure-eight pattern consisting of a central “waggle run” and two return loops. The three primary elements of information conveyed in this dance are direction, distance, and quality of food source.

A diagram of the waggle dance with lines showing a figure eight pattern
The general pattern of a waggle dance.

1. Direction

When a bee does a waggle dance, it moves in a certain way to show other bees where to find food. The direction of the food is shown by the angle the bee moves during the “waggle run,” or straight part of the dance.

Think of the honeycomb as a clock face.

  • If the bee moves straight up towards 12 o’clock during the waggle run, this tells the other bees that food is in the same direction as the sun.
  • If the bee moves towards 3 o’clock, the food is directly to the sun’s right (or 90 degrees).
  • If the bee moves towards 9 o’clock, the food is to the left of the sun (or 270 degrees).

The bee can perform a waggle run at any angle, providing other foragers with a precise direction for nearby forage.

Check out the examples below. They illustrate the worker bee’s dance based on three different forage locations.

2. Distance

The duration of the waggle phase in a waggle dance is explains the distance of the food source from the hive. The time-to-distance ratio can vary slightly among different species of honey bees.

For honey bees, one second of waggling corresponds to 750-1000 meters (2460-3280 feet) in distance. The longer the waggle phase lasts, the further away the food source is.

3. Quality of food source

The intensity or enthusiasm of the bee’s dance signals the quality of the food source. A more vigorous dance signals a higher-quality source.

Returning foragers will still have the scent of the particular flower on their bodies. This fragrance provides the colony with valuable information about the type of flower and the quality of the nectar or pollen it gives.

Bees use chemical signals known as pheromones to communicate a variety of messages. To signal the quality of a food source, they release tricosane, pentacosane, Z-(9)-tricosene, and Z-(9)-pentacosene.

A forager bee may regurgitate a small amount of nectar on her return to the hive. This sample will provide the rest of the colony with cues for what to look for when they head out foraging.

The bee also creates thoracic vibrations that offer another way to signify the quality of the food source. Those with higher sugar content are best, causing the bee to dance longer with more forceful and frequent vibrations.

How does the waggle dance help the hive?

  1. Food source communication: it allows worker bees to communicate the location of rich food sources to other bees. This information ensures that foragers do not waste time and energy searching randomly for food.
  2. Resource allocation: helps the hive decide how many bees should be allocated to gather from that source. A lively dance may signal a highly profitable food source, prompting more bees to visit it.
  3. Swarming decision: used when the hive gets crowded and roughly half the bees need to find a new home. Scout bees use a form of the waggle dance to communicate the location and quality of potential new nesting sites.

Other types of bee dance

Round dance

The round dance is a simpler communication technique to signal a food source near the hive. Unlike the waggle dance, which communicates the direction and distance to a food source, the round dance only communicates proximity.

The forager bee moves in a circle, changing direction now and then. This dance pattern tells the other bees that a food source is nearby – usually within 50 to 75 meters.

A diagram of the round dance directional flow
An example of the round dance.

Sickle dance

The sickle dance is another form of bee communication. This intermediate dance bridges the round and waggle dance, performed for moderately close food sources.

The movement in the sickle dance resembles a crescent or sickle shape, hence its name. Bees starts with a short, straight waggle run, then curve to the right or left back to the starting point. Bees repeat the action turning to the opposite side.

Just like the waggle dance, the sickle dance conveys both direction and distance of the food source. However, its form is less precise, and the straight-line portion of the dance is shorter.

Trembling dance

A bee may twitch and tremble as it runs around, looking to recruit receiver and storage bees to assist with unloading pollen and nectar,

Jostling dance

Returning foragers may run and push other bees to let the colony know they’re about to waggle dance.

Spasmodic dance

A variation on the jostling dance that includes food sharing, and presumably gives the same message.

What types of bees waggle dance?

  • Black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis)
  • Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana)
  • Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata)
  • Himalayan giant honey bee (Apis laboriosa)
  • Koschevnikov’s honey bee (Apis koschevnikovi)
  • Philippine honey bee (Apis nigrocincta)
  • Red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea)
  • Western honey bee (Apis mellifera)

Worker bees perform waggle dances. They have several roles in the hive, including foraging for nectar and pollen from flowers.

The queen bee and drones do not perform the waggle dance. You can learn more about the roles of a queen here and drones here.

While bumble bees also live in social colonies like honey bees, they don’t perform any dances. Instead, they rely on individual exploration and olfactory cues to find food.

How did the waggle dance evolve?

The waggle dance is believed to have evolved at least 20 million years ago during the early Miocene when modern honey bee species diverged.

It is challenging to pinpoint why it evolved, as behavior changes usually relate to the evolving species’ environment. One theory suggests the waggle dance was developed to take advantage of certain food reserves or their distribution.

The benefits of the waggle dance fluctuate with the seasons. If a hive is tipped sideways, making the combs horizontal, bees can still indicate a food source’s presence and quality but not its location.

In some seasons, studies found this lack of location information didn’t impact the hive’s weight gain, meaning the foraging efficiency. It implies that food is so plentiful during these times that merely encouraging foraging, which the dance does, is enough.

An illustration explaining how the honey bee shows its nest mates where pollen and nectar is located
Another way of viewing the waggle dance.

Commonly asked questions

Who discovered the bee dance?

Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch first decoded the waggle dance in the mid-20th century. His ground-breaking work on honey bee communication earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

Do bees dance when they need cleaning?

Bees have a grooming dance, a separate communication form where a bee stands still with her body raised high, and her wings spread, signaling to her hive mates that she needs cleaning.

Do bees always follow waggle dance instructions?

While the waggle dance significantly influences forager bees’ activities, bees may ‘do their own thing.’ They can use previously known locations or rely on personal discovery.

What if more than one bee does a waggle dance?

Multiple bees can perform waggle dances simultaneously, mainly when there are various rich food sources. Bees then follow the dance that represents the most appealing source, based on factors like the dancer’s enthusiasm and the food source’s richness.

What happens to dancing bees if foraging is interrupted by bad weather?

If a bee’s foraging activities are interrupted due to bad weather or nightfall, the dancing bee still adjusts the angle of its waggle dance according to the sun’s movement. It can accurately show the direction of a food source, even if it has been several hours since last leaving the hive.

How does it do this? Bees learn the sun’s position during their initial orientation flights, and they use this knowledge to adjust their dance as the sun moves throughout the day.

What if buildings, thick cloud cover, or dense forest block the sun? Bees can locate the sun based on the pattern of light polarization.

Further research needed

The waggle dance continues to intrigue scientists due to its complexity and precision with which it communicates crucial information. As of 2021, several areas remain ripe for further investigation:

  • Understanding variation among species: While the basic mechanisms of the waggle dance are understood, there is variability among different species of bees. More research is needed to comprehend these differences and what they imply about the evolution and adaptation of bees.
  • Impact of environmental changes: As bees face climate change, habitat loss, and pesticides, researchers are interested in how these pressures might affect bees’ communication systems, including the waggle dance.
  • Other parts of bee communication: The waggle dance is just one part of a complex suite of communication behaviors in honey bees. Other components, such as using pheromones or specific buzzing sounds, are areas for future studies.
  • Behavioral plasticity: Honey bees exhibit remarkable behavioral flexibility in response to changing circumstances. Understanding the neural and genetic basis of this flexibility, as it relates to behaviors like the waggle dance, is a significant area of ongoing research.
  • Impact of disease and pests: How disease or pests, like the varroa mite, impact the waggle dance and overall hive communication is another area of research.

Interesting research

We’re read some interesting research papers on the subject of the waggle dance and summarized them into bullet points.

Decoding the dance parameters of eastern honeybee, Apis cerana

Hu, Z., Miao, C., Di, N. et al. Decoding the dance parameters of eastern honeybee, Apis cerana. Apidologie 54, 10 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-023-00990-5


  • The researchers results confirmed that the duration and number of waggle dances of A. cerana waggle run duration is a linear function of distance to a food source.
  • The test result was the same as that of a previous study, which indicated that the duration of waggle runs of the eastern honeybee during long-distance foraging was similar to that of the western honeybee.
  • The waggle dance is a multi-component signal for advertisement of food sources and attracting surrounding bees (Gruter & Farina, 2009).
  • When the foraging distance increased to 3400m, the duration of the waggle run increased to the maximum.

Read more>


  • Many social organisms assist their group mates in foraging.
  • The waggle dance is beneficial in reducing commuting costs.
  • The honey bee waggle dance allows nest mates to communicate the locations of rewarding flower patches.
  • The researchers predicted that dance communication influences foraging distances and increases the aggregation of foraging locations.
  • They tested these predictions by manipulating Apis mellifera colonies’ ability to communicate location information in a heterogeneous landscape.
  • The research results show that dance communication plays an important role in the spatial distribution of foraging. It potentially reduces commuting costs by directing recruits to closer foraging locations.

Read more>

In the waggle dance, a dancing bee (Apis mellifera) executes fast and short forward movements straight ahead on the comb surface, returns in a semicircle in the opposite direction, and starts the cycle again in regular alternation.

Since navigating bees benefit from path integration (Wehner & Menzel, 1990; Dyer, 1998; Collett & Collett, 2002; Wehner, 2003), vector memories from recent flight paths might be recalled in the dance context.

Detour experiments by von Frisch and colleagues indicated that the bees’ visually driven odometer is primarily decoupled from the processing of directional information, indicating that no global flight vector is reported in the context of the waggle dance.

If the waggle dance computes directional information which depends on the current state of the animal’s path integrator and on information that the animal has associated with landmark views, that is, local vectors associated with landmarks (Etienne et al., 2004), navigating bees would rely on an egocentric and geocentric system of reference.

It has been argued that the navigational strategies applied by foraging bees cannot be fully appreciated if one assumes a hive-centered egocentric form of spatial memory. The orientation flights of young or reorienting bees lead to a map-like spatial memory derived from repetitive exposure to the same landmarks from different viewpoints. Given this capacity and that bees are recruited by a dancing bee only after they perform their orientation flights, it is tempting to assume that bees attending a dance might recall from their memory of landmarks and homing vectors a corresponding outbound vector related to expected landmarks.

Read more>

Daren M. Eiri, James C. Nieh; A nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist affects honey bee sucrose responsiveness and decreases waggle dancing. J Exp Biol 15 June 2012; 215 (12): 2022–2029.

  • Rortais et al. estimated that bees collecting nectar could be exposed to imidacloprid doses of 1.1–4.3 ng bee–1 (Rortais et al., 2005).
  • Honey bee larvae that are indirectly exposed to brood food with 5 or 20 p.p.b. of imidacloprid emerge as adults more susceptible to Nosema infection (Pettis et al., 2012).
  • The researchers sucrose responsiveness (SR) results align with those reported in other studies.
  • Dechaume-Moncharmont suggested that a feeder with 20 p.p.b. imidacloprid may reduce the frequency with which foragers waggle dance (Dechaume-Moncharmont, 2003).
  • Treatment had a significant effect on sucrose response threshold (SRT) (F2,516=16.96, P<0.0001), and colony accounted for 7.5% of model variance.
  • Other studies have demonstrated a generalized reduction in movement and overall activity in honey bees treated with imidacloprid (Teeters et al., 2012; Suchail et al., 2001).

Read more>

Further reading

  • Hu, Z., Miao, C., Di, N. et al. Decoding the dance parameters of eastern honeybee, Apis cerana. Apidologie 54, 10 (2023).
  • Seeley TD, Mikheyev AS, Pagano GJ. Dancing bees tune both duration and rate of waggle-run production in relation to nectar-source profitability. J Comp Physiol A. 2000;186(9):813-819. doi:10.1007/s003590000134.
  • The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, by Karl von Frisch.
  • Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas D. Seeley.


The waggle dance is a fascinating communication method used by honey bees. It conveys detailed information about the direction and distance to a source of food or a new hive location.

This dance demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of insect communication. It illustrates how bees can translate their experiences into a shared knowledge that benefits the entire colony.

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