The Evolution of the Honeybee Waggle Dance: A Population Genomics Approach (Distance Learning Project)

University of Aberdeen

School of Biological Sciences

Project Description

The honeybee Apis mellifera is a key pollinator for many wildflowers and commercial crops, providing fundamental ecosystem services to a wide range of natural and human-dominated environments. Honeybees use a fascinating communication system to share information among nestmates about the location and profitability of food sources or nesting sites. This communication system is called the “honeybee waggle dance” and multiple aspects of this system have been studied since the last century. We now know that A. mellifera is capable of informing nestmates about the distance of the site from the hive, and the angle of the flight path to the site with respect to the sun. This type of symbolic communication is achieved through dance movements performed in the dark hive.

However, we also know that A. mellifera is not unique in this behaviour. Other honeybee species within the genus Apis perform similar “dances” with varying levels of complexity. For example, A. cerana, another cavity nesting bee, dances in the dark and relies exclusively on vibrational and sound cues, while A. dorsata and A. florea nest in open spaces and often use visual cues. There are also bee species outside the Apis genus that communicate with nestmates for food using stereotyped movements with different complexities, including stingless bees and bumblebees.

Honeybee species are native to the tropics and thus dance evolved in an environment where flowers are available in small patches and for short time periods annually. In this context, it is useful to promptly communicate the location of food to nestmates. In other types of environments where honeybees are now widespread, including agricultural fields and urban environments, the advantage of performing the waggle dance is less obvious since these homogeneous spaces might render this behaviour unnecessary.

This project aims at investigating the evolution of the honeybee waggle dance at the genetic level. The student will investigate whether key genes associated with the performance of this behaviour are under positive selection in populations of honeybees that are exposed to a range of different environments, from native tropical forests to rural and urbanized environments in Europe and North America. The experimental approach will proceed in different evolutionary and ecological contexts, which will be defined through a literature review conducted by the student as part of their research activity. This could include a comparison of:

– populations of A. mellifera from different parts of the world, reflecting a gradient of ecological diversity and evolutionary history;
– A. mellifera with closely related species, to provide a phylogenetic framework for studying the evolution of dance;
– Apis with other bee groups, where a similar range of complexity in dance behaviour is observed.

The choice of comparative approach(es) will depend on the availability of genomic resources. Where possible, the project will rely on population genomic data that are already available for public use. For A. mellifera, genomic data from different global populations are already available. If sufficient research funding is secured for the project, it will be possible to produce new genomic resources to address multiple evolutionary questions.

The proposed research is flexible and has the potential to be conducted as Distance Learning, allowing the student to undertake the project remotely. The student will be in regular contact with their supervisory team by Virtual Conference and will have full remote access to bioinformatic tools through the CGEBM. The supervisors will coordinate with the student to identify partner labs in the student’s home country where they could perform molecular work. If circumstances permit, the student will be encouraged to visit Aberdeen to meet the supervisors, experience the environment, and perform molecular work if necessary.

Funding Information

This PhD project is only open to sponsored students and those who have their own funding. Supervisors will not be able to respond to requests to source funding.

Application Process

To submit an application please visit our Website
-Apply for ‘PhD in Biological Science’
-State the name of the lead supervisor on your application
-State the name of the project

Please note that we will not proceed with applications that have not stated their intended funding source. Applicants will be expected to have suitable computing materials to enable to work from home at a distance to undertake this project.


Sen Sarma M, Rodriguez-Zas SL, Hong F, Zhong S, Robinson GE (2009) Transcriptomic Profiling of Central Nervous System Regions in Three Species of Honey Bee during Dance Communication Behavior. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6408. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006408

Sen Sarma M, et al. (2010) Distance‐responsive genes found in dancing honey bees. Genes, Brain and Behavior 9(7):825-830.

Couvillon, M. J. (2012) The dance legacy of Karl von Frisch. Insectes sociaux 59.3: 297-306.

I’Anson Price R & Grüter C (2015) Why, when and where did honey bee dance communication evolve? Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 3:125.

Barron AB & Plath JA (2017) The evolution of honey bee dance communication: a mechanistic perspective. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 220(23):4339-4346.

Dogantzis, Kathleen A., and Amro Zayed (2019) Recent advances in population and quantitative genomics of honey bees. Current opinion in insect science 31: 93-98.

To apply for this PhD, please use the following application link: