How Do Bees Find Their Way Back To the Bee Hive and Can Lost Bees Find a New Home In Another Bee Colony?

There is a good chance a bee will find its way back home to the bee hive if it somehow got lost.

Its large size suggests it was a queen or worker bumblebee, one of the Bombus species. Bees employ special orientation flights to memorize near and distant landmarks relative to the nest.

As well as these cues, they also use the sun’s position as a landmark, making use of a built-in clock to compensate for the sun’s movement across the sky.

Tagged worker Bombus terrestris and Bombus pratorum bees have been released at staged points from their nests and all returned safely, the farthest from 4 miles away.

The bees were taken to their starting points by car, in the expectation that their usual navigational aids would be compromised, much as one might expect from a train journey.

However, it is likely that their internal clock, compensating for the movement of the sun, enabled them to use solar positioning to fly back to a distance from the nest at which their visual cues would come back into play.

The ability to find a nest from a long distance away is vital to bees because nest sites and food may not be found in the same habitat.

The very large females of the solitary, nonsocial bee genera Anthophora and Proxylocopa always flew straight out from the nest entrance and over the horizon formed by the shoulder of a hill about a third of a mile away.

It is also known that workers of the much smaller honeybee Apis mellifera can forage up to 8 miles from the hive, even in wooded country, and females of some large neotropical bees are thought to have foraging ranges of up to 20 miles

If a lost bee was a queen Bombus, it might have been able to insinuate itself into an established colony of the same species by lying low in the nest to give it time to absorb the colony odor and avoid aggressive responses from resident bees.

An egg-bound queen with aggressive tendencies might kill the resident queen and assume control of the colony. But an exhausted and disoriented bee entering a strange colony may well be killed by the workers. All of these behaviors have been reported for bumblebees.

A female Anthophora unable to find its nest might excavate a new nest if suitable sites were close by. However, as far as we know, no one has tried to see if such displaced solitary species will set up nest at a new site.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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