Letters to Nature

Nature 411, 581-583 (31 May 2001) | doi:10.1038/35079072; Received 23 February 2001; Accepted 3 April 2001

Honeybee dances communicate distances measured by optic flow

Harald E. Esch1, Shaowu Zhang2, Mandyan V. Srinivasan2 & Juergen Tautz3

  1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556, USA
  2. Centre for Visual Science, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia
  3. Biozentrum Universität Würzburg, Am Hubland, D-97074 Würzburg, Germany

Correspondence to: Harald E. Esch1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to H.E. (e-mail: Email: harald.e.esch.1@nd.edu).

In honeybees, employed foragers recruit unemployed hive mates to food sources by dances from which a human observer can read the distance and direction of the food source1. When foragers collect food in a short, narrow tunnel, they dance as if the food source were much farther away. Dancers gauge distance by retinal image flow on the way to their destination. Their visually driven odometer misreads distance because the close tunnel walls increase optic flow2. We examined how hive mates interpret these dances. Here we show that recruited bees search outside in the direction of the tunnel at exaggerated distances and not inside the tunnel where the foragers come from. Thus, dances must convey information about the direction of the food source and the total amount of image motion en route to the food source, but they do not convey information about absolute distances. We also found that perceived distances on various outdoor routes from the same hive could be considerably different. Navigational errors are avoided as recruits and dancers tend to fly in the same direction. Reported racial differences in honeybee dances1 could have arisen merely from differences in the environments in which these bees flew.