Honeybee Navigation

Trick question: Who first discovered that the world is round?


Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons

No, contrary to outdated grade-school history books, it wasn’t Columbus. It wasn’t even one of those brainy philosophers of ancient Greece.


Photo by Matt Neale via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, you might say that it wasn’t a “who” at all …


Well, hold onto your honey jars, because the answer might surprise you …


Photo by Björn Appel via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right, honeybees can be credited with the first system of global circumnavigation! And you don’t hear them bragging about it, do you?

Using the sun as a reference point—even when it’s on the other side of the planet—honeybees are able to communicate the location of food to one another through a deceptively simple dance.

“The dance language, which bees use to communicate, is based on the location of the sun,” explain researchers at Ohio State University. “When bees return from a food source, they perform a ‘waggle dance’ on the vertical comb nearest the entrance to the hive. The dancing bee makes a short, straight run while waggling its abdomen, then circles back and repeats the action several times. The bee orients its dance so that the angle between the direction of the straight run and the ray opposite gravity is the same as the angle between the food source and the position of the sun. Given this angle, other bees can orient themselves to the sun and locate the food source.”

Need I mention that bees have a minute fraction of the brain cells we possess?


Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, I’m sure the bees’ sense of direction is boosted by the fact that bees are more sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field than any other creature. Not only do they incorporate this magnetic pull into their solar calculations, they use it to accomplish the perfectly precise hexagonal design of their combs.


Photo by Merdal via Wikimedia Commons


Leave a comment 3 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    Yes, the bee dance is truly amazing!! I always wondered how they do what they do and find what they need. It is ingenious in both it’s simplicity and complexity. I also read in one of my books that the hexagon is the perfect geometrical shape for holding the largest amount of volume in a tight space. There is such interesting science behind the methodology of honey bee living and hive building. Honey Bees add such value to the lives of people everywhere. Who would ever guess that the sweet honey enjoyed in so many ways is the result of steps repeated over and over by this incredible insect.

  2. Wow MJ, once again you amaze us! While I am sure most of us knew about the bee dance , I bet not that complicated arrangement about the positions of the sun! and would this be geometry of sorts? What a great way to teach it in schools.
    Haven’t seen a single honey bee this season, altho I am 3/10 of mile from a neighbor with several large commercial sized hives . But much as I love bees, I got nailed yesterday.I am allergic but didn’t have to use my epi-pen, only on a finger. I dashed inside the house and made a quick paste of meat tenderizer to put on it, then covered it all with a cold compress for about an hour. Yep the bee venom is neutralized by the enzymes in the tenderizer. Go look it up on the internet. I keep a jar of it in my car next to the epi-pen and in the spice cabinet ( duh)

  3. calle says:

    Bees fascinate me, they are a wonderment. They will play a wilderness part of our lives someday.
    After talking with young bee keepers who shared that range land bee keeping is possible if you plant an herb and wildflower garden, I am anxious to get started.
    So next we will plant some plots.
    This is a question for you; have you or any of your friends built the quart jar hives? Just saw the pictures last month. The bees build their combs in the jars and then fill with honey.
    It looked too simple.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *