Friday, September 11, 2020

How do honeybees find their way back home?

Our three main hives all look pretty similar and they're located really close to each other, so you might wonder how do honeybees find their way home at all, let alone into the "right" hive? It's really a fascinating process called orienting. 

Honeybees have an astounding ability to understand their environment, where the hive is, where the food/water sources are and-- even more amazing-- how to tell their colleagues directions to get there! 

I'm just a simple beekeeper, so I won't try and explain all the intricacies of the honeybee's dances and behaviors, but what I can show you is some new foragers doing their orientation flights.

These flights are typically calm "floating" patterns right outside the hive but without any overt attempt to land or fly away. The bees are sorta just loitering there and studying what the hive and it's surroundings look like. This is different, by the way, from the frenzied and erratic flights or bees trying to raid another hive's honey, an event called "robbing" that is exactly what it sounds like and very destructive to the victimized hive.

Now having said all that, and as amazing as honeybees are at navigation... they do mess up. They will quite commonly find themselves landing at the wrong hive. If the hive has guard bees that are being attentive, they'll push and drag the foreign bees off the landing board and/or pick at them until they realize their mistake and try anew to find their way home.
Even so, it is not uncommon to have bees mistakenly end up in the wrong hive, especially when there are a lot hives close together like in an apiary. Beekeepers call it "drift" when these accidentally itinerant workers end up in the wrong hive and it's a big reason why managing the hives in an apiary has to be a coordinated effort, so that an unhealthy or mite-distressed hive doesn't take down other hives.

If you really want to learn more about honeybees' impressive ability to navigate, I encourage you to start by reading this article, which gives a pretty good summary of how they do it.

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