LASI Waggle Dance Workshop

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On Saturday I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of West Sussex Just outside Brighton.

As the traffic was a lot better than the weather I managed to get there early and had plenty of time to have a mosey around the labs and meet some of the great and the good of UK apicultural research.

Once things kicked off, we were given a tour of the labs by Professor Ratnieks followed by a presentation giving an overview of the work undertaken by LASI, the difference between Basic and Applied research, handy for layman like me but in short Basic Research is conducted to increase the knowledge about whatever it is you're researching, Applied research is aiming to use gained knowledge for the improvement of something. But I digress.

In terms of working directly with Honey Bees, LASI have undertaken a number of areas of research under the banner of the Sussex Plan and the Waggle Dance research forms a part of that.

Prof. Ratnieks then gave some more general background information into the nature of the waggle dance and its initial "discovery", perhaps recognition for what it was is a better term, by Von Frisch through to subsequent studies carried out most notably by Thomas Seeley in the US before handing over to Dr Couvillion to look in more detail at the work being done by LASI.

Under the imaginatively named heading of Project 2 the aim is to look into the rather broad question of "How good is the UK countryside for bees?"

To answer that question you need to know how bees are using the landscape, Where this project seems to differ from similar ones that have run before is that it is collecting data over two complete seasons to try and determine changes to foraging patterns and to attempt to generate seasonal maps of visited habitat.

Following on from that we looked at how the constituent parts of the dance were broken down and analysed by the team.

For a quick refresher, here's Bea (sorry) giving a demo of the dance:

You're looking for the bee with full pollen baskets just to make it easier Sorry for the shaky cam footage, those frames get surprisingly heavy after a few seconds.

So the dance has two main components within the figure of 8 pattern that she's running and looking at the video I've just realised something. The angle at which she waggles is the the azimuth from the sun (if you drop it to the horizon) relative to the hive. On the video she's waggling almost straight down which would normally mean that the bees watching would know to fly away from the sun. BUT the frame is being held upside down, does the bee realise this? I shall have to try and find out. I'm guessing that if they can adapt the dance, in the darkness of the hive, to take into account the movement of the sun, something as simple as turning the frame upside down shouldn't phase them.

The second important part of the dance is the length of the waggle, this indicates distance. I was always told that this approximates to around 1 second per kilometre of distance but this turns out to be something of an over generalisation. They were kind enough to let me write down the calculation they use to convert the timings they measure into distance.

Mapped out onto a graph, and with a little jiggery pokery to make it a little more obvious, the timings are little more interesting. The first second or so is far more precise in terms of distance than subsequent seconds, so we get a graph with time on the X axis and distance on the Y that looks like:

(click for larger version)

In terms of how the data is gathered and analysed they have 3 observation hives that they basically point cameras at to record the dances:

Each with a series of plumb lines to mark 0 degrees.

Each Dance is then analysed by a Mark I eyeball using some video editing software which gives timings to a 25th of a second and the angle is quite simply measured by taking two points from the bee's thorax during the dance and drawing a line through one of the plumb lines and taking the bearing from 0 which is then measured against the position of the sun for the time the dance was recorded, still with me? So it's a pretty labour intensive process, especially as each dance must be measure for 4 circuits and an average taken of both the angle and the time. Apparently the bees are quite happy to also take an average and go from there.

Despite this, over 3,000 individual dances have been analysed so far and plot against a map of the surrounding area, out to 10 miles month by month over the two years that data has been collected. It was interesting to see, for example that during the typical Summer or June Gap that the bees were largely ignoring the countryside and heading into the city to forage.

While perhaps not directly useful from a beekeeping perspective the day was fascinating and I feel I've learned an awful lot about bees and have some interesting ideas that I will be looking at. It's not co-incidence that I just happen to have filmed some of my own bees dancing the day after. I may not be able to reproduce the results as accurately, but I can at least get a reasonable idea of just how far my bees are flying. With them being on an allotment, I've always assumed that they probably don't go very far, now I can find out

More information LASI and the Sussex Plan can be found at their Website and if you ever get a chance to attend one of their workshops I thoroughly recommend it.

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Updated 21-06-2011 at 12:58 AM by Neils



  1. gavin's Avatar
    Superb report Nellie, many thanks. Do tell us what you find out from watching your bees dance - mine forage over a surprisingly large area. Marrying their maps of where the bees go with the habitat and plants found there will be fascinating so I'll look forward to seeing more from Sussex.
  2. Jon's Avatar
    Given that Gavin has just posted another clip from Life of Brian, it has reminded me of the Wabble of wowdy webels which put me in mind of the old Planxty classic. Waggle Taggle Gypsy.