I still can’t tell when foraging honey bees are returning to the colony weighed down with nectar. Apparently that’s a thing people with good eyes learn to recognise, but I’m not there yet. I probably spend too much time in awe of honey bees to slip well into scientific observation mode. But I’m pretty sure I know what orientation flights look like. I better.
Honey bees returning from a foraging flight or taking off to a known foraging area don’t mess around. They seem to fly in an efficient straight line, all business. They take flight and they’re gone, out sight in about two seconds. They slow down a bit coming back but don’t seem to hover in front of the hive too long before they commit to landing. Again, they seem sure of themselves.
Honey bees during orientation flights, on the other hand, don’t seem so sure of themselves. They fly out and immediately turn back, but hover in front of the hive for… 30 seconds? Two minutes? I’ve never bothered to time it. But they quickly turn around and sort of stare at the hive while bobbing and weaving in the air like a boxer not entirely sure of their footing. Their little brains need a little time to take in the landmarks that lead them back to home.
When they’re feeling a little braver, instead of hovering and then beating it back inside the hive and calling it a day, they’ll start flying in small safe circles around the hive that gradually become wider and wider circles as they take in even more landmarks. They keep circling farther and farther away from the hive, going higher and higher, until they’ve registered enough landmarks to a make a beeline for some flowers. They go for it.
That’s how I usually explain it whenever anyone asks me about orientation flights and they have the time to listen to me ramble. Honey bees begin to forage for pollen around the age of two weeks. Pollen is relatively easy to collect. They just jump into a flower and rub up against everything. The pollen sticks to them whether they like it not. They graduate to collecting nectar, which is more complicated, about a week later when they’re three weeks old. How do I know this? Because I read it in a book. But all that stuff about orientation flights — I’ve seen it enough to know that, yup, that’s what’s happening: The fabled orientation flight of the honey bee.
Honey bees bees going out into the world for the first time will take part in orientation flights. All foraging bees will do the same after they’ve been stuck in the hive because of bad weather for a while. Word around the campfire is that honey bees can’t remember anything that happened three days ago. So if they’ve been stuck in the hive because of rain, drizzle and fog for three days (I’m looking at you, Newfoundland), their first foray outside is usually a little uncertain and they have to orient to the hive again just like they did when they were kids.