Honeybees do “waggle dances” to communicate and let each other know where to find the best food to forage.

A study in the journal PLOS ONE indicates that over 1,500 honeybee “waggle dances” have been decoded by scientists.

There is a growing awareness that something needs to be done to help bees survive as their numbers have plummeted in recent years and colony mortality has reached unsustainable levels in many places, due to parasites, pesticides, pathogens and the loss of native prairies. A recent report showed that the US honeybee population declined by 40 percent between April 2018—April 2019. Understanding waggle dance messages can have significant implications for humans striving to provide flowers and plants that bees want to eat.

The lead author of the study, which was conducted by the University of Minnesota, is Morgan Carr-Markell. She intends to help land managers wanting to plant for bees by being able to give them ‘insider information’ about what bees enjoy eating most. She saw bee communications as the perfect way to access that data.

Enjoy this 3:20-minute long video created by Margaret Couvillon, one of the study’s co-authors:

Honeybees are the most valuable pollinators humanity has, so it is in the best interests of people to make sure they are well stocked with the food sources that keep them healthy and happy. In many places, bees are literally starving because one-crop mono-cultures often do not supply the foods bees need as nutrition.

A well-nourished bee can deal with other environmental hazards better than a bee that is weak for lack of nutrition.

The Upper Midwest was mostly prairie lands once upon a time, until Europeans settled in the region. Today, only 2% of that natural habitat still survives. To start restoring habitat to a natural state, scientists need to understand more about the foraging patterns of local bees.

Carr-Markell and her team created glass hives to allow scientific observation. They then positioned bee colonies at the Belwin Conservancy and Carleton College’s Cowling Arboretum, two locations in Minnesota that are close to two large, reconstructed prairies. The two main themes of observation were what time of year the bees foraged the most, and what types of flowers the bees targeted for nectar and pollen.

Between 2015 and 2017 the team observed female bees doing waggle dances that involved the bees flying in figure-eight formations. To indicate the direction where the flower patch is located, the bee waggled in the straight part of the figure-eight relative to the position of the sun on the horizon, by making an angle with her body. The longer the waggle, the farther away the flowers are. The distance to the flower patch is signaled by how long she waggles — each second equals about 750 meters (2,500 feet). The value of the food source seemed to be transmitted by the speed she turned around to repeat the figure-eight and the number of repetitions of the dance.

The total amount of waggle dances decoded by researchers was 1,528. The flower patches referred to were mainly outside the reconstructed prairies. But near the end of foraging season in August and September, the honeybees told each other about nectar sources within the prairies at one location. The team believes this is due to the need to stock up for winter.

The team also analyzed which flowers were most prized by the bees by collecting pollen from the pollen baskets of some honeybees. They found there were seven plant groups native to prairies that were potent pollen sources, like golden rods and prairie clovers. The scientists believe these findings have implications for future prairie restoration since quality honeybee nutrition is key to them surviving in a world of countless stressors.

Authors of the study concluded that by including certain native prairie flowers in reconstructed prairies, there are improved chances that honeybees will use those prairies as important food sources at times of greatest colony growth and honey production. Helping honeybees in this way can give them more of the nectar and pollen sources they need to thrive.