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Honeybee dances communicate distances measured by optic flow


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.

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Figure 1: Distance calibration.
Figure 2: Distribution of counts of searching bees recruited by tunnel bees.


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This research was supported by grants from the Whitehall Foundation to H.E.E., from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft to J.T. and partly by grants from the Human Frontiers in Science Program, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval research to M.V.S. We thank C. Baum, A. Meikus, A.-K. Scheuerman and C. Sylvester for their help during experiments and data evaluation.

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Correspondence to Harald E. Esch.

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Esch, H., Zhang, S., Srinivasan, M. et al. Honeybee dances communicate distances measured by optic flow. Nature 411, 581–583 (2001).

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