Honey bee science

show/hide words to know

Decipher: to decode or the meaning of something.

Ultraviolet: (1) light waves at wavelengths less than those visible to humans. Also called UV light. (2) invisible light rays just below the violet end of the spectrum... more

Bee Communication

Honey bees use all of their senses to find the best flowers including: smell, color, shape, location, petal textures, and time of day. But what does a bee do when she wants to tell her sisters what she has discovered? 

The inside of a bee hive with a large number of workers packed into a small space.

Honey bees need to communicate with each other. With so many bees in a colony how do they communicate? Image by CJ Kazilek.

How Bees See Flowers

Honey bees and most insects can see most colors you and I see— green, blue, and violet. Honey bees cannot discriminate reds very well, but in exchange they can see ultraviolet light—the same light we use sunscreen to protect our skin from. Most flowers have taken advantage of this and have ultraviolet patches called nectar guides. These guides help attract bees to land and show the bees where to get nectar.

Two flowers, on the left is the visible view and the right is ultraviolet light.

Bees see flowers differently than humans. They can see visible light and also ultraviolet (UV) light. Image by Plantsurfer via Wikimedia Commons.

Honey Bee Dance Language

How does a honey bee tell her sisters when she finds the locations of rewarding flowers, a drinking hole, or even a great new home? She will fly home and dance. That’s right, dance. Experienced bees use the angle of their body relative to the hive ceiling to tell their sisters the direction and approximate distance of whatever they are dancing for. Then the well-informed sisters go off and check out this location for themselves. You can play the bee game and try to interpret the dances of bees yourself.

Illustraton showing a honey bee with the diagram showing the path for the waggle dance. Other worker bees are watching.

Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973 in part for deciphering the language of the bees. In some of his first experiments he put a honey bee hive in a field with a single nectar feeder for the bees to collect from. Dr. Frisch then sat and watched the bees inside their hive.

After long hours of observation he noticed the bees doing a waggling behavior inside the hive. He traced and measured animals as they did this behavior throughout the day. By doing this Dr. Frisch noticed that the bees changed the angle that they danced at the same rate as the sun moving through the sky. He discovered the bees were using dance to point their sisters to the sugar feeder relative to the sun. Later Dr. Frisch and others deciphered other parts of the bee dance language that encoded distance, but there is still so much we can learn about these marvelous little insects.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Bee Communication
  • Author(s): Christopher M. Jernigan
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: June 13, 2017
  • Date accessed: June 12, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/honey-bee-communication

APA Style

Christopher M. Jernigan. (2017, June 13). Bee Communication. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved June 12, 2024 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/honey-bee-communication

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Christopher M. Jernigan. "Bee Communication". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 13 June, 2017. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/honey-bee-communication

MLA 2017 Style

Christopher M. Jernigan. "Bee Communication". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 13 Jun 2017. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 12 Jun 2024. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/honey-bee-communication

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Bees touching their antennae

Worker bees communicating with their antennae.

Be Part of
Ask A Biologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute

Share this page:


Share to Google Classroom