February 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Honeybees Fly with Mental Maps

You can tell a honeybee to get lost, but it can’t.  You can even take it off its flight path, but it will find its way back.  Scientists writing in PNAS1 this week described experiments by a European team that wanted to test their navigating abilities.  They marked bees at feeding stations, then took them way out of the path dictated by the “waggle dance” back at the hive.  (The waggle dance, performed by a scout, provides them with information about the direction to the food relative to the sun, the distance, and the food quality.)  How did a bee behave when put in strange country?  The team watched them with harmonic radar:

A sequence of behavioral routines become apparent: (i) initial straight flights in which they fly the course that they were on when captured (foraging bees) or that they learned during dance communication (recruited bees); (ii) slow search flights with frequent changes of direction in which they attempt to “get their bearings”; and (iii) straight and rapid flights directed either to the hive or first to the feeding station and then to the hive.  These straight homing flights start at locations all around the hive and at distances far out of the visual catchment area around the hive or the feeding station.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

That’s pretty amazing navigation for a fingernail-sized creature.  The scientists figured that the bees must form a map in their head to be able to choose between two goals after getting reoriented.  “This finding suggests a rich, map-like organization of spatial memory in navigating honey bees,” they concluded.


1Menzel et al., “Honey bees navigate according to a map-like spatial memory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0408550102, published online before print February 14, 2005.

Look at how much ability is stored in a tiny bee brain.  If insects weren’t so small (most of them) we would certainly consider them some of the most awe-inspiring creatures on earth (see Bob Jensen Photography for incredibly beautiful insect photos).  Too bad some of them went bad after the initially harmonized creation.
    We rely on honeybees, our good friends.  Be nice to them.  They usually won’t resort to stinging unless they feel threatened, because for them it is a last resort.  Don’t swat at them if they are hovering over your picnic.  Relax and don’t panic; they are not after you.  Just wave your arms gently and continuously over the food, and eventually they will go somewhere else.  Let them be free to go pollinate flowers and get their own natural food.
    This article could stimulate a science project for an enterprising and fearless youngster, under proper care and supervision.  How long does it take the bee to realize it is off track?  How long does it take to find home?  What senses might it be using to re-orient itself?  Required introductory research should include the Moody Science classic, City of the Bees.  See also our 05/31/2001 entry about bee navigation.

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