Social learning occurs when an individual learns through observation or interaction with another. Eusocial insects (i.e. insects with an advanced level of social organization) use social learning. Still, it’s unclear whether this learning shapes their communication, which can be remarkably sophisticated and cognitively complex.

The honey bee’s waddling dance has long been recognized as a behavior that transmits resource location information from a foraging worker bee to her nestmates. However, it is not yet known whether following the dance can improve the performance of young waddle dancers or whether the dance is completely genetically pre-programmed (innate).

A new study by the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California San Diego showed that proper wagging requires social learning.

Honey bees use social cue learning to improve their ability to wag their tails.

Waggle dance was believed to be performed by a successful forager who found a good source of pollen, nectar or water. It provides information about the presence, quality, identity, direction, and distance of the resource for nestmates to find and use.

The scientists built colonies where they saw the first waddle dances from collectors who may or may not have followed other waddle dancers. A cohort of day-old bees was used to establish each of the five experimental colonies.

Dr. DONG Shihao, the study’s first author, said: “As these bees aged, we monitored the colonies until we observed the first waddle dances and then observed the same dancers 20 days later when they had more foraging and dancing experience.”

“We found that bees that didn’t have the chance to follow dances before their first dance produced significantly more disordered dances with larger waddle angle divergence errors and incorrectly encoded distance.”

“When the same bees were older and experienced dancing and dancing, they significantly reduced divergence angle errors and produced more ordered dances. However, they were never able to produce normal distance encoding.”

Why should honey bees use social learning to improve their tail wagging?

TAN Ken from XTBG said: “Learning is a useful way of fine-tuning behavior for local conditions. We propose that the unique topologies of each colony’s dance floor make it beneficial for novice dancers to learn from more experienced dancers. Another possibility is that experienced dancers can pass on distance encodings based on local optical flow to nestmates.”

Magazine reference:

  1. Shihao Dong et al. Social signaling of the tail wagging in honey bees. Science. Link to paper.