Social learning plays an important role in a honey bee’s ability to “waggle dance,” report researchers, who observed that honey bees not exposed to the dances of older, more experienced nestmates produced disordered dances full of errors. The findings demonstrate that social learning shapes this complex form of insect communication, just as it does in humans, birds, and other social vertebrate species. The waggle dance is a behavior that honey bee foragers use to communicate spatial information about the precise location of a food source to other nestmates. During the dance, the performing bee dances a series of figure-eight-shaped loops in the hive while waggling her abdomen. The length and angle of each waggle run encode the flight distance and direction to the target. Nestmates that observe the dancer learn where the bounty is located. While it’s recognized that there is a genetic component underlying the waggle dance, less is known about whether it is a fully innate behavior or one learned and/or enhanced via social learning. However, according to Shihao Dong and colleagues, if the dance was fully innate, young bees would be able to perform the dance correctly, even if they had never witnessed the behavior before.
To evaluate this question, Dong et al. set up honey bee colonies composed exclusively of newly emerged bees and found that, despite having no prior exposure to the behavior themselves, they began to display the dance a week or two after hatching. However, these inexperienced bees danced dances with significant errors in distance and direction. And, while the accuracy in direction improved as immature bees gained experience, they consistently overestimated distance in their dances throughout their life. Immature bees from control colonies, which were able to observe the dances of older, experienced bees before initiating their own dances, did not suffer similar shortcomings. “Some scholars assume that instinct is by default the ancestral (or primitive) state and that learning is more advanced. The opposite is more rarely considered: Individual learning might be at the root of some behavior innovations that are not partly innate,” write Lars Chittka and Natacha Rossi in a related Perspective. “The study of Dong et al. adds to the growing evidence that complex behaviors are seldom entirely innate.”
Social signal learning of the waggle dance in honey bees
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