How bees learn to dance

How bees learn to dance

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) on artichoke flower (Cynara scolymus), at the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, in 2019.

Dor three decades, zoology has suffered two shocks. The first has to do with what is called “the characteristic of man”. With a clear result: the more researchers search, the more they temper the exceptional character of our species. The second concerns the eternal debate between the innate and the acquired. For a long time, humans thought that (other) animals operated on instinct. It was all in their genes, once and for all, we thought. Learning could only relate to simple behaviors, an imposed change in diet, for example. Well no ! Like us, animals learn, pass on knowledge, skills and tastes. And the field of these social achievements, of these “cultural apprenticeships”, it is also said, is constantly expanding.

An article published Thursday, March 9 in the review Science demonstrates this vividly in one of the most emblematic behaviors of social insects: the dance of bees. Let us recall the principle. When an explorer discovers a food source, she returns to the hive to announce her find. The course in the shape of a figure of eight, accompanied by wriggling that she then performs, does not however aim to celebrate the good news, like a footballer after a goal. The orientation, the duration, the speed of the movements inform its congeners on the direction to take, the distance to cover and the quality of the feast to expect. The icing on the honeycomb, she can drop a drop of nectar to help her friends choose the flowers better.

A real symbolic language coming out of such a small brain: to accept such a shock, humans have long put forward an explanation. All this was innate, inscribed from birth. Wasn’t it the Austrian Karl von Frisch who affirmed it, on the sidelines of his incredible description of the phenomenon which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973? “In reality, we were blinded by dogma, says Lars Chittka, of Queen Mary University of London, a leader in the discipline. They had the courage to question it. »

Shadowing Elders

They are four researchers from the Kunming Botanical Garden (China) and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). They created colonies composed exclusively of young bees and compared their behavior to that of classic colonies, in which the ages vary. In the seconds, the juveniles discover the dance by observing their elders, then risk it. In the former, they act on instinct.

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