Students study bees to create waggle dance translator

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Video by Ally O’Rullian

The tango, the cha-cha and the waltz all pale in comparison to the waggle dance performed by honeybees that tells other bees the direction and distance to find plants.Computer science students at BYU are studying this performance to create a monitor that can translate their movements in real time.

Honeybees are one of the most intelligent and important animals in our ecosystem. But unknown to many, these bees like to boogie.

They perform something called the waggle dance and all it takes is a few simple steps.

“It waggles back and forth on what is called the waggle run, this central part it’s like a line. Then they’ll return back from the beginning of that line, waggle again, return back, waggle again and they’ll keep doing that over and over and over,” student research director Griffin Holt said.

But the dance isn’t all style and no substance. “These bees are telling us where they’re pollinating, where the food sources are,” Holt said. 

If worker bees find a great food source, they tell others its distance and direction from the hive through the waggle dance. The longer they wiggle, the further the distance. The angle they perform the dance relative to where the hive faces the sun is the direction to go.

Holt started learning about bees as a hobby, but with the help of his advisor Sean Warnick, that interest bloomed into an information systems research project. Their idea was to create a waggle dance translator.

The point of the translator would be so people can view live video of hives while a computer monitor tracks and measures their movements in real time. Not only could it be used in educational exhibits, it could help farmers understand which produce the bees are paying the most attention to.

“The bees act as a bioindicator of the health of the environment,” Holt said.

The project comes from IDeA Labs, a collection of research groups at BYU that hire students from different majors to apply theory to real life projects.

“We think something really special happens when you have people from different backgrounds working to solve a problem,” Warnick said. 

But with temperatures dropping, bees aren’t pollinating as much, so the research may need to hibernate until the weather warms up.

“This first part may be an exercise in can we actually not kill the bees,” Warnick said. 

So far the bees are getting all the care they need. To check out the hive visit the Life Science Greenhouse, open 8-11 a.m. on weekdays.

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