23 April 2016

Orientation flights.

Orientation Flights are the first flights bees take, it's how they learn the position of the hive in relation to local landmarks. We more often refer to orientation flights as the forward and hive-facing flying we see when colonies are expanding, where it seems that new flyers are learning what the front of their home looks like so they can recognise it, and pinpoint its location. But that isn't all they do, and it's hard for a beekeeper to see how bees learn the location of their home within the wider local environment when a colony has been in the same spot for a long time because older bees get in the way.

It's actually amazing to watch a colony orientate en masse, something that will only happen when a colony finds itself somewhere new - when a beekeeper moves a hive, or perhaps when a swarm relocates from a tree to a permanent nesting site, or maybe even when a tree containing a nest falls down and the colony suddenly finds itself at ground level.

When the first two colonies of bees arrived at the small apiary it was intensely interesting (because they were new, because I was a new beekeeper and having bees was exciting) and so, of course, the hives were closely observed for hours on end - but I'll always remember those first few minutes.

Once the hives were safely in place, and the entrances were opened, the very first thing I saw and recognised from descriptions in the books was mass orientation. Bees poured out of the hives and instantly realised they were somewhere new, so had to work out where they were and how to return. This had to be done quickly, otherwise they couldn't collect food, propolis, or water and bring it back to their nest.

They first flew in small, horizontal, figure of eight* patterns with the front of the loop very close to the hive entrance. The 8 pattern gradually grew horizontally to about 2 metres (6ft ish) and then the loops gradually moved upwards, although still basically horizontal, until the bees were flying high enough to clear nearby hedges.

The circular loops of 8 pattern continued to grow sideways, and move upwards, until some of the bees were flying level with the treetops - but not all of them seemed to do this, some flew away as soon as they could clear the tops of the hedges. Maybe these were the scouts, instantly more confident of being able to find their way back to the hive?

Within only a matter of minutes - perhaps no more than ten - bees were returning with pollen, whilst others had found our garden pond and were collecting water.

At the same time as this was happening a number of bees (perhaps house bees?) stayed on the outside of the hive close to the entrance, and used their Nasanov Glands to disperse pheromones which would help returning bees navigate - just in case they got lost. Or were these bees simply telling the rest of the colony where they were, sort of an, "I'm here" scent?

I do like their belt and braces approach where bees do their own orientation whilst others use scent to mark where they are. It's also rather amazing that these tiny insects can so quickly learn the exact location of a very small hive entrance, and can distinguish the scent of their own colony, knowing with certainty that it is not a similar-looking box belonging to a different colony that's only just a couple of feet away.

I'm sure we humans could learn from it and maybe use a road map as well as a sat nav - that way there might be fewer cars ending up in rivers, and fewer lorries getting jammed in narrow streets! I'd certainly like a sure fire way of knowing, without hesitation and without deviating from my course, a direct route to where my car is hiding in a multi-storey car park.

* A sideways 8 is the infinity symbol .


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