Of bee butts and wiggles

It’s fun to investigate what people search for to find my blog. I’ve noticed a wiggling, shaking and bum-raising theme:

A bee bum.

‘Why do bees wiggle their bums’
&
‘Why do bees shake their bum’
&
‘Why do bee butts pulse’
&
‘Why do bees put their bums in the air’

Well, here’s some potential answers…

1. Why do bees shake their bum?

One reason is to dance! The well-known waggle dance tells honey bees where food sources over 100m away are located. It’s a figure of eight shape with the bum waggle in the middle. The dancer will stop to exchange the nectar she’s collected with ‘watching’ workers so that they know what they’re looking for (I say watching but they’re really feeling her vibrations, as the dances are done in the dark of the hive).

The direction of the dance on the vertical face of the comb indicates the direction of the flowers in relation to the sun. As honey bees can see polarized light, the sun does not have to be shining for the dance to be successful. The nearer and more high quality the forage, the faster the dance and the more waggles in the middle.

There are also other types of honey bee dances that involve abdomen waggles/vibrations:

  • round (tells other foragers there is food somewhere within 15m of the hive)
  • transition (halfway between a round and waggle dance, if food is between 15 and 100m away)
  • buzzing runs (an excited dance. The worker runs through the colony buzzing her wings. Other workers she runs into will pick up her movement and start running around buzzing too. It’s used as a signal for a swarm to exit the hive or take off once a new home has been found.)
  • DVAV (dorsoventral abdominal vibrating dance) (get a move on – a worker will mount or grab another bee and vibrate their abdomen on top of her. Used to recruit more foragers during a nectar flow.)

In my previous post on Bee communication I went into more detail about the various meanings of honey bee vibrations and movements.

2. What does it mean when a honey bee butt moves in and out or pulses?

This search suggests the observer was not seeing a communication dance but something else – breathing!

Bees have no lungs but move oxygen into their bodies through breathing tubes (tracheae), which are connected to surrounding air through multiple holes in their body called spiracles.

In his book ‘The Biology of the Honey Bee’ (1987), Mark L.Winston explains that “When the bee is inactive gas exchange can operate simply by diffusion, but during periods of increased activity bees pump their abdomens to increase gas exchange” (p.34).

This pumping movement makes the abdomen move rhythmically as oxygen goes in – which could be the ‘in and out’ movement the searcher was thinking of. A bit like us breathing more heavily and panting after we’ve been running fast.

3. Why do bees put their bums in the air?

Honey bee workers will raise their abdomens in the air to expose a gland called their Nasonov gland. An scent attractive to other bees is released by this gland. The bees will fan their wings while raising their bottoms, to disperse and spread the Nasonov scent.

Nasonov is used by the bees to mark previously scentless locations such as water or a new colony location. I have seen my bees do it when their hive was moved a couple of feet, presumably to help returning foragers find their way home. Similarly, when a virgin queen leaves the hive to mate, workers will mark the entrance with Nasonov pheromone to guide her back.

Nasonov gland scenting

Nasonov gland scenting

A bee bum.

A bee bum.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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21 Responses to Of bee butts and wiggles

  1. disperser says:

    Interesting.

    Humans also expel gas by working their abdominal areas . . . although the results are seldom pleasant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ian Stell has an article in the BBKA news called ‘Do bees pant?’

    It is republished in the reprint of the articles http://www.bbka.org.uk/shop/product/bbka-news-honey-bee-anatomy/

    Like

  3. So good to hear that someone is still able to find giggles among their remaining visible search terms. It gives us hope. And thank you for sharing them.

    We actually spent a few moments wondering what the ‘pepperpot’ might have been. Drone genitalia partially protruding from a queen’s bottom? Never struck us as looking much like a pepperpot. Then we realized that bees were never mentioned in that particular search and an entirely different scenario was pictured.

    An invasion of miniature Daleks.

    Like

  4. Weird searches: “pepper pot in rectum” certainly trumps my oddest, “how to dispose of dead body?”. Maybe they thought a wildlife site might help. But with your query I can’t think where bees would fit in. As it were. RH

    Like

  5. I’ve noticed the in and out movement of the abdomen while they are taking nectar. It looked a bit as if they were sucking it (severe case of anthropocentric thinking) but following your explanation, they are working hard and need more oxygen for respiration. Amelia

    Like

  6. P&B says:

    Cool info. Thank you.

    Like

  7. theresagreen says:

    An enjoyable post, thanks Emily. It can be a frustrating business try to phrase a query so a poor old search engine can find an answer, you can almost hear the desperation in some – probably their 20th attempt or so! There’s a lot to be said for reading books!

    Like

  8. Pingback: Of bee butts and wiggles | How To Raise Bees

  9. Pingback: Of bee butts and wiggles | Raising Honey Bees

  10. Laurie Yair says:

    I am totally fascinated with bees…I received on my Facebook page about a week ago (July 2018) about how special paper with UV and glucose is helping the bees to thrive and how bees are helping humans to thrive. But every time I look up something about bees, there is a link on another interesting fact about bees.

    Unfortunately My Father was very very allergic to bees and his cousin died of a bee sting. Bee allergy in the genes…

    Laurie Yair

    Like

    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Laurie – I saw something about the special paper too. You never run out of interesting facts to read about bees. What a shame that you have bee allergy in the genes. Perhaps you might have escaped, but I can understand why you wouldn’t want to test that!

      Like

      • Laurie Yair says:

        Hi Emily

        I am not allergic to bees..got stung when pregnant in fact. Bees have never bothered me but to be a beekeeper? I wouldn’t have the guts! So we hear that we need bees but we ALSO need BEEKEEPERS and we must be thankful to them too!!!

        Like

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