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Biologist says bee language is learned, not just innate

Humans learn language from their elders. And the same is true of honey bees.

Biologists who study bees have known that forager bees can find food in the wild and tell others in the hive where it is. The language they use is a dance, or a waggle.

Whatever it’s called, it conveys to other bees the direction and the distance to the food.


“This is the most sophisticated animal communication that we know of,” said James Nieh, a biological scientist at UC San Diego. “Because the bees are actually telling each other where to go to find resources.”

In its dance, the bee points her head in the direction of the food, and the length of time she waggles her abdomen indicates how far away it is. All forager bees are female.

Nieh wanted to determine whether this behavior was instinctual or learned. So he created a colony in which young bees were isolated from older ones.

“In the experimental colony — because of how this works — they could never observe other bees waggle dancing because everybody was the same age,” he said.

Bee with red dot doing the waggle dance

Those isolated juvenile bees would later make a lot of mistakes in their waggle dancing. In fact they never really learned how to communicate the distance to the food.


Nieh said this showed that bee behavior is greatly affected by the language they learn. And the use of the language allows them to quickly adapt to the different environments that they have to live in.

“Passing that information to the next generation of foragers and dancers could be helpful. And it’s a much faster way to adapt to different situations than having it genetically encoded,” Nieh said.

He said transmitting useful behaviors genetically, through evolution, would take an awful lot longer, even in the case of honey bees who only live for about 40 days.