When honeybees dance to point their hivemates towards nectar-rich flowers, they waggle in a slightly different direction each time. It is sometimes claimed that this variability benefits the hive by helping bees locate new resources, but an experiment by David Tanner and Kirk Visscher from the University of California, Riverside, seems to have overturned this theory.

By observing bees trained to visit artificial sugar-traps, Tanner and Visscher discovered that rather than picking a flight path based on the angle of any one waggle, the bees flew off in a direction that more closely matched the mean angle of several waggles.

"Bees apparently keep a mental log of the directions indicated in the dance," says Tanner. "I find it remarkable that, with a relatively simple brain, they can do something so mathematically complex."

Tom Seeley at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who has studied several aspects of honeybee societies, says he finds the study convincing. He adds, however, that the bees may not have been relying solely on the waggle dance when deciding which direction to fly off in. They could also have taken their cue from bees returning to the hive, he says, "for example by orienting to the flights of these bees as they flew to or from the feeder".

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, DOI: [link]