Lesson 1.4

Honey Bee Communication

Grades: K-3

Essential Skills: Science, Language Arts, Math, Drama

Duration: 1-2 class periods


Students learn about honey bee communication through two specific dances. This lesson offers a glimpse of the cooperative efforts required for honey bee survival.


Teacher Preparation:

Curriculum Support Materials:

  1. Poster 3. Honey bee queen and worker on comb

Other Materials:

  1. Four varieties of artificial flowers (either purchased or made by students).
  2. Four different scents (aromatic oils such as orange blossom, rose, lilac, honeysuckle, and pine work well).
  3. Recording of "Flight of the Bumblebee," an interlude into Act III of the Czar Sultan Opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakoff, 1899.
  4. Antennae (students can fashion these by attaching pipe cleaners or springs to plastic headbands).
  5. Sugar cubes or packets to represent nectar.
  6. Honey, toast, rice cakes, cereal and/or crackers.

Information Sheets:

Activity Sheets:

Lesson Plan

Introduction activity (30 minutes)

Help students to envision the honey bees' environment and begin to think about how animals communicate by reading aloud the passage below:

In a faraway field, on a warm summer afternoon, a solitary ant discovers a tasty morsel of food on the ground. Within minutes the area is covered with worker ants busily snatching away particles of food to be returned to their colony. Chemical signals laid upon the ground by the first worker were detected through the other ants' antennae and communicated exactly where the food could be found. On this same summer day, a honey bee discovers a rich source of nectar in a new bloom of wild flowers. Soon, these flowers are buzzing with activity as other workers from the same hive arrive to harvest the food. Like the ants, the honey bees must communicate the location to their hive mates. But, how do they communicate the precise spot of a distant bloom of flowers when they must travel there by wing?

Explain that all animals have a means of exchanging information with one another. Some use visual signals, such as body movements or facial expressions, to convey meaning. For example, a gorilla beats its chest to intimidate others and to assert authority. Other animals rely on sounds to communicate. Birds sing,coyotes yip, and dolphins make sounds in the air-filled sacs connected to their blow holes.

Chemical signals also are important cues that can be detected by the sense of smell or taste. Ask students to suggest and discuss examples of human and animal communication. Make a list on the chalkboard.

Students typically mention that cats and dogs mark their territories with chemical signals and birds define their territories through song.

But what of the foraging honey bee? How does it recruit workers to harvest nectar-rich wildflowers far from the hive?

Typically, students assume that it is only the bees' buzzing that conveys the location of the nectar source to the other bees, so they are surprised to learn that honey bees also "dance" to communicate this information to their hive mates.

Explain that students, too, can master the honey bees' dance and communicate information with their hive mates (classmates). But first they must create the honeybees' environment.

Activity 2 Beeing a bee (30 minutes)

Begin by showing Poster 3 and discussing the different roles of the inhabitants of the colony: the queen, whose job it is to lay eggs, the male drone, whose only job is to mate, and the female worker, whose many and varied jobs include building the hive, caring for the developing young, regulating the temperature in the hive by creating an air current with her wings, and foraging for nectar (rich in sugar) and pollen (rich in protein). For the sake of inclusion, it is recommended that all students (girls and boys) forage for food, even though the task is restricted to females in a honey bee colony.

Next, create the "hive" and the "field" in which they will forage. To prepare the field, have students "plant" four varieties of artificial flowers in different spots around the classroom. One of each type of flower should be placed at each location in the classroom. The field should contain at least 28 flowers. Spray each variety of flower with an individual scent to help the "honey bees" identify the source of nectar. Place some sugar cubes or packets (to represent sugar-rich nectar) within the petals of a few flowers so that they may be harvested and collected by "bees" who decipher the forager's communication properly.

Once the field is set up, distribute a set of antennae to each student. When the foraging begins, play a recording of "Flight of the Bumblebee" to simulate the sounds present in a real colony.

To begin, select three or four students to be forager scouts. Each forager scout takes a separate turn searching for a flower with sugar cubes or packets in the field. While the forager scout looks for the nectar-rich flowers, have the rest of the students dramatize other tasks required for hive maintenance, such as caring for the young and regulating hive temperature with their wings. Have them do this in another part of the room (or hallway) to ensure that students do not observe which flower the forager scout selects.

Have the forager scouts return to a designated area at the entrance of the "hive." Here the forager scouts must communicate, in honey bee language, three separate pieces of information to enable the worker bees to locate the flower the forager selected: (1) the type of flower holding the nectar, (2) its direction from the hive, and (3) its distance from the hive. This information is conveyed in the waggle dance.

Activity 3 The waggle dance (30 minutes)

Discuss with students that after a foraging bee locates nectar-rich flowers (those with sugar packets), she returns to the hive and quickly gathers the other worker bees. She communicates the source and location of the food using both chemical and visual signals in the form of a highly stylized dance.

When the flowers are a distance greater than 100 meters from the hive, she performs a "wagging" or waggle dance in the pattern of a figure eight. (See Information Sheet 7.) These figure-eight movements are repeated for several minutes and are accompanied by a rapid "wagging" of the bee's abdomen (13-15 times per second) during the straight run of the dance and an audible buzzing sound created by rapidly beating wings.

As the bees crowd around the returning forager, they place their antennae on her body, gathering important information regarding the type of flower that holds this rich food supply. The scent of the flower on the forager's body and in the nectar that she regurgitates tells of the flower she has visited.

Tell the student-forager scouts that they will perform a waggle dance to communicate the location and type of the nectar-rich flowers to worker bees. Have them dramatize the honey bee's motions by shaking their hips and flapping their arms as they dance through their figure-eights.

To communicate the type of flower, a student-forager scout will carry a piece of paper containing the scent of the flower she is sending workers to harvest. For example, if the flower is a rose scented with orange oil, then the paper would also have the scent of orange oil.

Student-worker bees should gather this important information by sniffing the paper during the waggle dance. Encourage students to lower their antennae while doing this, since that is where the bees' chemical detectors are located.

The direction of the nectar-rich flowers is communicated during the straight part (waggle run) of the figure-eight dance. Normally, when the waggle dance is performed by honey bees (on a vertical surface) the direction of the sun is up. In this case, the honey bee orients herself by using the sun as a compass. During the dance, she maintains the same angle between her body and the sun as she observed when she collected the nectar from the flower. To simplify the dance, make the direction to the flowers the direction the dancer faces during the straight run of the figure-eight movement.

The waggle run also conveys the distance from the hive to the food source. As the distance to the food source increases, the waggle run becomes more prolonged and stately. As a result, fewer runs are performed per minute. For example, if the food source is 100 meters away from the hive, the waggle run is performed 9-10 times every 15 seconds, but at a distance of 10,000 meters this rate decreases to one run per 15 seconds.

The "workers" in your honey bee hive must observe the dance closely and gather the information being communicated. "Worker bees" need to ask themselves:

"In what direction do I need to fly?"

(The direction the dancer faces during the straight run of the dance.)

"How far do I need to travel?"

(The number of waggle runs performed in 30 seconds.)

"What type of flower holds the nectar?"

(Worker bees will not be able to identify the type of flower until they arrive at the right location and discriminate among flowers "growing" there based on their scent. Time to lower those antennae again!)

Conclusion (10 minutes)

After each nectar-rich flower has been located and the foragers are safely home in the hive, celebrate the day's harvest with a sample of honey on toast or crackers.

The exhausted "bees" are always amazed to learn that each honey bee must visit more than 1,000 flowers in order to fill its honey sac, which is only the size of a pinhead!

As students snack on honey and crackers, ask them to consider the honey bees' activities in terms of the plants' life cycle and the bees ' life cycle. Typical comments include: "I guess the bee is really my friend and not my enemy." "I never realized that all these spring flowers wouldn't be here if we killed all the bees." "I'll never again look at a honey bee and think it just stings!"

This lesson was adapted from Science & Children, May 1994. "Dancing for Food, The Language of the Honeybees." Jo Beth D'Agostino, Maryanne Kalin-Miller, Mary Keegan Diane Schiller, and Stephen Freedman. Honey bee photo used with permission of P.-O. Gustafsson, Sweden. http://www.kuai.se/~beeman/



Words with special meanings:

(for understanding only, not to be tested)

  1. Communication
  2. Foraging
  3. Waggle dance


Beastly Behaviors: A Watcher's Guide to How Animals Act and Why, by J. M. Benyus. Published by Addison-Wesley, 1992.

Bees Dance and Whales Sing: The Mysteries of Animal Communication, by M. Facklam and P. Johnson. Published by the San Francisco Sierra Club, 1992.

The Honeybee, by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould. Published by W. H. Freeman, 1988.

The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honeybee, by K. Von Frisch. Published by Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

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