It has long been believed that bees use dance to communicate the location of food amongst each other. If true, this would make bees unique in the insect world, as all other insects are guided by smell. Here's what Wikipedia says about the dance:

Waggle dance is a term used in beekeeping and ethology for a particular figure-eight dance of the honey bee. By performing this dance, successful foragers can share with their hive mates information about the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources, or to new housing locations.

However, this seems to be disputed. Adrian Wenner's experiments have the greatest evidence to support "odor plume" theory over "waggle dance" theory.

The paper that might be of most interest to you The Elusive Honey Bee Dance "Language" Hypothesis, or The Anatomy of a Ecological Controversy: Honey Bee Searching Behavior.

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    The wikipedia sources americanscientist.org/my_amsci/… and nature.com/nature/journal/v435/n7039/full/nature03526.html are not enough? – Sklivvz Apr 22 '12 at 17:15
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    I've understood this is pretty much accepted science. Can you point to a substantive claim to an alternative, perhaps it would be more meaningful to address that? – Ilari Kajaste Apr 22 '12 at 19:40
  • @user1873 I made further edits to make the question more clear. – Ilari Kajaste Apr 23 '12 at 5:45
  • I remember seeing a documentary, many moons ago, about an experiment with a device which resembled a drill machine in appearance. At the end of a long rod was a fake bee - the device could make the fake bee simulate the movements of the waggle dance. They would insert it amongst the other bees, and try to direct them to fly to certain points. If we could find this experiment, and they were successful, it would show it was the movements, not the odour. – Oddthinking Apr 23 '12 at 6:54
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    @user1873 - Karl von Frisch did not win the Nobel Peace Prize. That is assuredly all about politics and the like. – Rex Kerr Apr 23 '12 at 17:59

Following the Wikipedia sources, I found:

This described consisted of a number of ingenious experiments designed to test if the bees are being recruited to fly in a particular direction, or whether odour forms some part of the cue.

Their technique sounded like a science-fiction plot: they attached transponders to bees and tracked them individually by radar. They explain insect-tracking transponders only weigh between 6-20 milligrams; 10 years into their future and I still find this astonishing. I got distracted and followed it up. Forgive me for the digression, but here is a picture:

enter image description here Image source

They found some results that were consistent with the idea of a direction-based dance, but inconsistent with odour plumes.

The key result was that capturing and moving the bees would effectively disorient them - they would head in the same vector from the release point as their would have taken from the capture point.

Figure 1 from the paper

Another line of evidence was the absence of behaviours associated with other insects trying to detect odours.

[...] the flight paths showed no evidence of the casting or upwind zigzagging that is known to characterize odour-following flight in other insects. These two facts, and the flight path data [...] together carry the very convincing inference that recruits leave the hive with prior knowledge of the direction and distance of a food source that they have never previously visited. By themselves, these observations thus provide extremely strong, direct support for von Frisch’s hypothesis that recruited bees ‘read’ the waggle dance, but the most compelling evidence comes from the flights of displaced recruits.

They point out that the waggle dance alone is not 100% reliable, with some unsuccessful insects returning to the hive to get the directions again, and that odour and visual cues are important in the final stages of finding the food source.

We hope that together with earlier studies, particularly those of Gould10, Srinivasan et al.13 and Esch et al.14, our results will also be accepted as a vindication of the von Frisch hypothesis.

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  • "The majority flew in the hive-to-feeder direction [...] Tracks were truncated where they derivated by more than 90 degrees from the hive-to-feeder direction over a track distance of more than 8 m." I wonder if these bees would still have traveled East (90 deg.) If the hive had been moved to the east instead if continually to the west (that would have been a better designed experiment, wouldn't the bee leave odor cues on the outside of the hive as it entered that would direct the bees?) – user1873 Jul 10 '14 at 14:58
  • Or was the feeder odorless? – user1873 Jul 10 '14 at 15:01
  • The feeder was "unscented". It was also downwind of the the hive. Even if it had a strong odour, that wouldn't explain the behaviour of the transposed bees. – Oddthinking Jul 10 '14 at 15:04
  • "The mean end-point to the feeder shows that on average the system is remarkably accurate." Does it? If I give directions to head due east for sqrt(100 miles), and 50% head due NW for 100 miles, and 50% head due SW for sqrt(100) miles, their average is 100 miles East. Is that accuracy? – user1873 Jul 10 '14 at 15:19
  • Wouldn't the "downwind" have an effect? Do bees like flying into the wind on average? – user1873 Jul 10 '14 at 15:21

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