Photo by Alex Wild @alexanderwild.com
I asked Keiran Zwirner, a rising senior working towards a degree in Fish and Wildlife Conservation with a minor in Forestry, to write a guest blog about his experiences in the Couvillon and Schurch lab in general and waggle dance decoding specifically. Try as we might, we just can't persuade him to give up his passion for honey bee behavioral ecology......
Left, left, left, left right left… And she’s gone. Great.
Honey bees don’t always cooperate on camera, and waiting for them to turn right a second time is often an exercise in futility. *What’s this guy talking about?* *I don’t know, marching bees or something.* Right, sorry, let me back up a bit.
Last summer, I assisted, along with one other brave soul, the carrying out of an experiment aimed at understanding the language of bees. *Whoooooaaaaaa, we can do that?* Yes, yes we can! You see, a honey bee speaks with its body (and a little bit its heart - although both of those points may be debatable). Bees dance to tell each other where to find resources, making a figure-8 pattern on the comb and “waggling” back and forth during the middle portion of the pattern. Hence, this is called the waggle dance. The angle of the waggle tells onlookers what direction to go, and the duration tells them how far to go. Hey, now you know how to ask a bee for directions!
So that’s why I needed another right turn. A bee turning to the left into a waggle will skew the information it’s relaying a little in that direction, but this skew will hopefully be offset by turning to the right the next time around. Appropriately, when we “decode” these dances, we want to have an equal number of left and right turns recorded. Some bees just don’t get that…
*Wait, what’s this about “decoding?”*
Right. Well, to make a long story very short, we filmed bees dancing after they returned from known locations, then over the course of several months, translated (or “decoded”) the dances into a distance and direction to those known locations. That way, we’ll know we’re understanding them (more or less) correctly in future experiments in which the locations will not be known. So don’t be shy about asking for directions; we do it all the time!
Dance decoding is both enlightening and boring. It’s enlightening because you learn the personalities of the bees you’re watching. For that matter, you learn that bees have personalities in the first place. This is noticeable if you’ve ever worked a hive, but it really becomes in-your-face obvious when you decode dances. Lucy is a great dancer – she waggles in a nice, straight line and really gives it her all! Rachel is a crappy dancer – she gets distracted in the middle of her waggles and clearly has her mind on bigger things. You get the idea.
Decoding is also boring. But hey, it’s data entry, not the circus. You wouldn’t ask a puppy to sit still all day long for your benefit (at least I hope you wouldn’t) – it’s just not in its nature. Same with dance decoding. It’s inherently monotonous, despite the revelations it provides regarding bee personality. However, monotony doesn’t have to be bad! As you get into the swing of things, you find that you can decode with part of your brain while using the other part of your brain to listen to a podcast or “watch” (listen to) your favorite show. You may need to occasionally hit the pause button if a bee is acting funny – or as she might put it, “expressing her personality” – and requires your full attention. This way, the decoding doesn’t suffer, and you can learn about World War II.