How, when and why does a honey bee do its orientation flights
Big thanks to fellow beekeeper Scott Mineikis from Buckinghamshire, England who prepared this article about honey bee orientation flights.
Let’s start with when do bees make their first orientation flights?
Some say that it could be within days of being born, some will argue that it is when the bee enters the foraging stage of its life. As with all questions with beekeepers you should expect many, many answers! This is my view taken from a number of sources, I’m not saying it's correct however suggesting on the balance of probability that this is more than likely to be the case. As you may know, the lifespan of a Honey Bee worker is 5-7 weeks and the first few weeks are spent in the hive, the last few as a forager. This timeline can’t be exact as there are many factors involved, such as consumption of pollen and the abundance of protein etc. but I would suggest that the first orientation flights are taken when the bee becomes a forager. Why do I think this, if you are making splits and moving nurse bees, these bees tend to return to the original hive? This could indicate that nurse bees are house bees and do not do orientation flights until they become forager bees.
Honeybees, perform exploratory orientation flights before they start foraging in order to become familiar with the terrain. There appears to be to types of orientation flights short and long-range orientation flights. Short-range flights are likely to be related to learning the specific features of the hive's immediate surroundings and can be seen more often under unfavourable weather conditions. Short-range orientation flights take bees no further than 30 m away from the hive and lack any clear direction The duration of long-range orientation flights declined from the first to the fourth flight because bees spent less time inspecting the immediate surroundings of the hive. During consecutive orientation flights bees explore new areas of the terrain, foraging flights performed after orientation flights cover greater distances and may involve a sector of the terrain not explored before. Exploration may be mixed with foraging flights after the initial orientation flights, sometimes leading to extremely long and elaborate flights* Navigation of bees is believed to be simple, employing isolated sensory-motor routines that are learned. For example, bees learn the directions and distances of their travels between hive and food sources by path integration, they use the sun to apply these memories and use landmarks to calibrate distances. Bees can retrieve flight directions from landmarks when the sun is not available.
But what if it's cloudy?
On cloudy days, honey bees are known to navigate to familiar food sources and orientate their dances accurately. This capacity could be based on a magnetic compass sense, an ability to perceive the sun or patterns of polarized light through the clouds, or on the bees' memory of the diurnal course of the sun with respect to local landmarks. Experiments pitting these alternatives against one another demonstrate that the navigational backup system of bees is based on memory.**