Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 419-427

The honey bee’s tremble dance stimulates additional bees to function as nectar receivers

  • T. D. SeeleyAffiliated withSection of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
  • , Susanne KühnholzAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada
  • , Anja WeidenmüllerAffiliated withZoological Institute, University of Erlangen, D-91058 Erlangen, Germany

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Abstract

If a forager bee returns to her hive laden with high-quality nectar but then experiences difficulty finding a receiver bee to unload her, she will begin to produce a conspicuous communication signal called the tremble dance. The context in which this signal is produced suggests that it serves to stimulate more bees to function as nectar receivers, but so far there is no direct evidence of this effect. We now report an experiment which shows that more bees do begin to function as nectar receivers when foragers produce tremble dances. When we stimulated the production of tremble dances in a colony and counted the number of bees engaged in nectar reception before and after the period of intense tremble dancing, we found a dramatic increase. In two trials, the number of nectar receivers rose from 17% of the colony’s population before tremble dancing to 30–50% of the population after the dancing. We also investigated which bees become the additional nectar receivers, by looking at the age composition of the receiver bees before and after the period of intense tremble dancing. We found that none of the bees recruited to the task of nectar reception were old bees, most were middle-aged bees, and some were even young bees. It remains unclear whether these auxiliary nectar receivers were previously inactive (as a reserve supply of labor) or were previously active on other tasks. Overall, this study demonstrates that a honey bee colony is able to rapidly and strongly alter its allocation of labor to adapt to environmental changes, and it further documents one of the communication mechanisms underlying this ability.

Key words Honey bee Communication Tremble dance Division of labor Task switching