Honeybees navigate according to a map-like spatial memory
Using radar scientists tracked the flight paths of displaced bees – the bees are captured leaving the hive or a feeder they are familiar with and are released in unexpected sites in their general territory. Behavioural routines are recorded:
1) Straight flights in which they fly the course that they were on when they were captured on a foraging flight or that they learned from directions given from bee dances (those are called recruited bees).
2) Slow search flights where they fly with frequent direction changes in order to get their bearings.
3) Straight rapid flights to the hive or the feeder even from unexpected places in their territory where they have no visual connection to either hive or feeder.
“Two essential criteria of a map-like spatial memory are met by these results: bees can set course at any arbitrary location in their familiar area, and they can choose between at least two goals. This finding suggests a rich, map-like organization of spatial memory in navigating honey bees.”
Menzel, R. et al (2004) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (website) http://www.pnas.org/content/102/8/3040.abstract
Diagram showing homing flights via the feeder (Fs) to the hive (H)
It is commonly accepted that bees use the sun as a reference point in both communication (waggle dance) and navigation, and that this is an innate understanding. Attempts to model this have apparently been unsuccessful.
Karl Von Frisch received the Nobel Prize for discovering one of the most difficult to fathom complexities of honeybee behaviour; their ability to ‘talk’ to each other abstractly through the Figure 8 Dance of the honeybee. The direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction pf pollen source. If it moves vertically upwards the direction to the source is directly towards the sun. The duration of the waggle signifies the distance. A waggle dance consists of one to 100 or more circuits, each of which consists of two phases: the waggle phase and the return phase. A worker bee’s waggle dance involves running through a small figure-eight pattern: a waggle followed by a turn to the right to circle back to the starting point (return phase), another waggle run, followed by a turn and circle to the left, and so on in a regular alternation between right and left turns after waggle runs. Waggle-dancing bees produce and release two alkanes that also seem to act as additional communication.
Unusual fact: Apparently honeybees cannot see white, hence the colour of beekeeping suits.