How do honeybees find a new home? In the same way they do most everything: Through a highly regimented, hierarchical yet democratic process—with dancing!
Yes, a variation on the “waggle dance” that scout bees use to communicate food finds is also employed when bees go real estate shopping, writes biologist, professor, and bee watcher par excellence Thomas D. Seeley in “Honeybee House Hunting” in Northern Woodlands magazine. A “search committee” is also involved, reports Seeley, as well as a lobbying and voting process that looks a lot like a political race. Once a scout has found a house site, she recruits supporters among fellow scouts and uses a waggle dance to tell them where it is, so they can take their own home tours. Meanwhile, writes Seeley,
Other scouts that have found other potential nesting sites will be vigorously advertising their proposals as well, so the uncommitted scouts are being actively recruited to various camps. All this makes the surface of the swarm look at first like a riotous dance party, but eventually the scouts choose a winner.
They do so in a most ingenious way. It works much like a political election, for there are multiple candidates (nest sites), competing advertisements for the different candidates (waggle dances), individuals who are committed to one or another candidate (scouts supporting a site), and a pool of undecided voters (scouts not yet committed to a site). At times, supporters for a site can become apathetic and rejoin the pool of undecided voters. The election’s outcome is biased strongly in favor of the best site because this site’s supporters produce the strongest dance advertisements and thus gain supporters the most rapidly, and because the best site’s supporters will revert to neutral-voter status the most slowly. Ultimately, the bees supporting one of the sites build up a large majority and return to the swarm cluster to initiate the swarm’s move.
Seeley, who in his recent book Honeybee Democracy further draws out the political metaphor, clearly brings scientific cred to the table: He’s been studying bees for more than 35 years, having gone so far as to take swarms and nest boxes to a treeless island off the Maine coast to divine their home-shopping behavior. But he also is a highly readable science author who is not above admitting to a bit of wonder when the swarm finally takes to the air:
How a swarm of bees steers itself to its new home is an almost mind-boggling puzzle. Somehow, a school bus sized cloud of some ten thousand bees manages to sweep straight from bivouac site to new dwelling place. The path of its flight can stretch for miles, traversing fields and forests, hilltops and valleys, and swamps and lakes. Perhaps most amazing, the airborne colony pilots itself over the countryside to one specific point in the landscape: a single knothole in one particular tree in a certain patch of forest. …
Eventually the swarm comes to a graceful stop at its new home, whereupon the scouts alight at the entrance and release a chemical signal from a gland in the abdomen to pinpoint the swarm’s final destination. Soon the other bees will begin blanketing the tree trunk around the nest entrance. A few minutes later, the queen will join them and slip inside without fanfare, and within another 10 minutes, all the bees will be safe inside their new home.