How Do Bees Find Their Way Back to the Hive?

Oct 26, 2020

Just like you go down the road to grab your groceries, bees have to venture out to find food, too.

If the bee doesn’t already know where to find food, they’ll fly all over the place and in a regular path until they find some tasty pollen. In all, they can travel up to around nine kilometers away from the hive.

But after they fill up on pollen, they don’t retrace their steps on that irregular path. Instead, they fly back in a straight line home. But how do they do that? How do bees know their way back to the hive?

You might think bees just have mental maps of their surroundings. Similar to how you don’t need Google Maps to find your way back from your workplace; You just know the route from knowing your town. But bees brains are much simpler and lack neurological structures like the hippocampus that play a vital role in forming these sort of cognitive maps in humans.

Here’s what happens:

When bees get back to the hive, they’ll do two little dances. By shaking their thorax they can transmute the location of their new snack. After this, the other bees will fly straight to the source and then straight back!

How does the bee know where it’s going and how can it explain this direction to others?

Research shows that bees use the sun to navigate. Since the sun is so far from Earth, over a short period of time, it’s basically a static object in the sky. Bees can therefore use their own relative angle to the sun to chart their path.

The bees first dance works as a reference position. The second dance indicates the new direction. The angle between the reference position and the new direction is the same angle between the food source and the sun relative to the hive. And because bees can see polarized light, they can figure out where the sun is even if its obscured by clouds.

This shows the bees early somewhat aware of their directional capabilities enough to explain it to the other bees.

Pretty interesting!

(Transcribed, edited, and additions permitted from How do Bees Find Their Way Back to the Hive? under Creative Commons Attribution licence)

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