Also Available in:
This article is from
Creation 17(4):46–48, September 1995

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe
Editor’s note: As Creation magazine has been continuously published since 1978, we are publishing some of the articles from the archives for historical interest, such as this. For teaching and sharing purposes, readers are advised to supplement these historic articles with more up-to-date ones suggested in the Related Articles below.

Dancing bees

by Robert Doolan

bee dance diagram
The top row shows the dance pattern which the bee performs to tell others in the hive the distance and direction to find the new food source.

Imagine you are a honeybee. You leave your hive one fine spring morning and scout around until you notice a field full of new flowers in bloom. The food back in your hive, which the 15,000 bees in your colony have fed on through the winter, has been getting low. But now, in this field, you have found a new food supply. So you fill your special honey stomach with nectar and fly the 250 metres back to your hive.

The other bees do not yet know where to find the blooms you have discovered. Your brain is only the size of a pinhead, but it is obvious that if you are to fully utilize this new food source you will need help. Before summer arrives, your colony could number more than 80,000 bees. But the little bit of pollen and nectar you would collect in each trip could see your colony starve before each member was fed. So how do you tell the other bees in your hive where to find the blossoms you have discovered?

In the early 1900s, Austrian naturalist Karl von Frisch puzzled over this curious problem. Fascinated with the ways honeybees worked together, von Frisch began a deep study of them. He found that one of the most remarkable characteristics of bees is the way they communicate. In fact, bees have one of the most extraordinary means of communication in the insect world. Von Frisch discovered that bees express themselves not only by feeling and tasting, but also by dancing.

To identify the location of a food source too distant from the hive to be smelled or seen by the other bees, the scout does a dance on the honeycomb inside the hive. Other bees gather around and closely follow the dancer. They imitate her movements (all dancing worker bees are female), and note the fragrance on her of the flowers from which the dancer gathered the nectar.

If the new food source is nearby, say within about 50 metres of the hive, the bee does a circular dance on the surface of the honeycomb. She moves around two or three centimetres (an inch or so), then circles in the opposite direction. This tells the other bees the food is close by. The scent they detect on her alerts them to what the new food smells like. So the other bees leave the hive and fly around in ever-widening circles until they find the new supply of flowers.

Dance for distance

If the new source of nectar or pollen is distant, the scout makes an ingenious alteration to her dance. She dances the shape of a ‘figure eight’, with intermittent movements across the middle of the figure. The distance at which the changeover takes place, from round dance to figure eight, varies among different types of bees. This does not cause them confusion, for the distance is constant within each hive.

Every movement by the scout has meaning for the other bees. They can tell the distance of the food source by the number of times the dancer circles during a given interval, and also by her wiggling abdomen. The greater the distance, the more slowly she wiggles. The direction of the food is revealed by the direction and angle the dancing bee cuts across the circle. If she wiggles across the circle straight up, the watching bees know they will find the food by flying towards the sun. If she cuts the circle straight down, they know they have to fly away from the sun.

If the dancing bee cuts across the circle at an angle, the other bees know they must fly to the right or left of the sun at the same angle the dancer moved to the right or left of an imagined vertical line.

This dazzling display of the honeybee dancers is truly a striking feature of the insect world. When we consider the complicated steps of the dance, and the detailed information conveyed and understood through it by all the world’s honeybees (von Frisch took 20 years to decipher it), we are entitled to strongly doubt that this process could ever evolve.

Could the dance evolve?

Let’s try to imagine the system evolving. A bee discovers a field in bloom. She returns to her hive and no one else knows where she filled her honey stomach. She can’t tell them herself, so the hive has to wait until individual bees haphazardly chance upon the same field, or she has to keep going back and forward hoping someone will follow her. Even worse, she may not remember how to get back to the field herself!

Now let’s suppose that one day an enterprising bee manages to invent the dance. How would she communicate to the others what it meant? How could she ever explain the geometry involved — that the angle she walks across the diameter of the circle is equal to the angle between the sun and the food source? What if the sun goes down before the other bees understand? How does she explain she has invented one dance for a food supply nearby, and another for a supply a long distance away?

How does she tell them that if she wiggles very slowly it means the field is very distant, and if she wiggles very fast it means the field is not far? How will they know that if the dancer walks up the honeycomb they should fly towards the sun, but if she walks down they must fly in the opposite direction?

Even more important, if this process slowly evolved over a long time, how would all the bee ancestors have survived while this system of communication was evolving? If they survived without this complicated method, why invent a new system that would be almost impossible to explain?

Among the wonders of God’s creation, the honeybee provides some startling evidence against evolution, and for design and purpose by the Creator. The precisely co-ordinated language used for the bee’s survival has too many necessary and independent parts for such a system to have evolved. We are forced by logic and common sense to conclude that the whole process was implanted in bees at the time of their creation. Like the bees, it did not and could not evolve.

The ‘round’ and ‘figure-8’ bee dances (diagram)
The ‘round dance’ reveals a food source not far away. The ‘figure eight’ dance reveals a distant food source.

The dance of the figure eight is also used when bees are selecting a new home site. If a hive grows too large, the queen may leave with part of the colony to search for a new home. She leaves behind one or more special eggs from which a new queen will hatch. The old queen and her swarm first congregate somewhere, such as on a branch of a tree. Worker bees are then sent to scout around for a suitable new home site. Any scout who finds a potential site returns to the others and tells them where her favoured site is by doing the ‘figure eight’ dance on the surface of the cluster of bees.

Other bees inspect each site and return to the colony to tell the others what they ‘think’ of it. The vigour of their dancing reflects their reactions to the suitability of the site. Finally, after perhaps several days of house-hunting, one of the sites gains overwhelming favour and the swarm moves off to start a new hive there.

One researcher watched this dance contest for four days, noting directions and distances of potential sites. He worked out the site, which was rapidly gaining favour, then hurried off to find it. He arrived at the new dwelling-place before even the bees did!

Such complicated communication seems impossible to explain if you believe bees and their language have evolved.

Helpful Resources