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You are here: Research & Tech Bee Behaviour Homing Ability in Honey Bees

Homing Ability in Honey Bees

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Chennai, May 31, 2011: Pahl et al.* say in their recently published research in the journal PLoS One: "Honeybee foragers frequently fly several kilometres to and from vital resources, and communicate those locations to their nest mates by a symbolic dance language. Research has shown that they achieve this feat by memorizing landmarks and the skyline panorama, using the sun and polarized skylight as compasses and by integrating their outbound flight paths." But can the bees find their home if they travel far from their hive? Or, how far the bees can safely go and return to their hive? To understand this aspect of bee behaviour, the researchers investigated the capacity of the homing abilities of the bees, using a radio frequency identification (RFID) system. They found that homing rate, homing speed and the maximum homing distance depend on the direction the bees were released in the investigation, the east being the best.

Following is the Media Release dated May 18, 2011 on this research by the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence in Vision Science (ACEVS).

*Reference cited: Pahl, M., Zhu, H., Tautz, J. and Zhang, S.W. 2011. Large scale homing in honeybees. PLoS ONE 6 (5): e19669. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019669

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THE VISION CENTRE

May 18, 2011

Bees 'read sky' to find home

Bees can find their way home from an amazing 11 kilometres away over several days' travel, thanks to their ability to remember landmarks and read information from the sky, a new study shows.

Vision scientists have found more reasons for the honeybee's incredible knack of navigating cross-country -- these creatures often rely on the position of the sun, the polarisation of light in the sky, the panorama view of the horizon and landmarks including towers, mountains or lakes.

Led by Professor ShaoWu Zhang from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science and the Australian National University, the research team released bees in Canberra, where the landmarks include Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie, Red Hill and Lake Burley Griffin.

"We found that from four kilometres onwards, honeybees homing from the eastern direction return to their hives sooner than bees from north, west, and south," says Prof. Zhang. "Also, when we released these bees from seven kilometres and above, only those from the east can successfully find their way back.

"This is because bees released from the east can see Black Mountain in the opposite direction. it also helps if they are released in the early afternoon, when the sun is situated in the west, too. When they fly towards Black Mountain, familiar local features can guide them back to the hive."

In the study, the team caught foragers as they returned to their hives and displaced them in a black box. The bees were then released in novel spots at various distances up to 13 kilometres in north, east, south and west.

"In their forage trips, one way that honeybees use to find their way home is by storing distance and directional information when they venture out," Prof. Zhang says. "In other words, they try to go back way they came.

"Catching them as soon as they reach their hives and placing them in a black box sets their pre-calculated information back to zero, so the bees are deprived of any directional information in relation to their hive. By doing this, we can confirm they are relying solely on knowledge that they have gathered about the landscape to travel home."

The team also used new technology to track the bee's journey. The placed Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on each bee and left a receiver at the hive entrance. The system recorded the exact arrival time of the individually targeted bees, including the late arrivals, ensuring accurate results without having a researcher keep watch for hours on end.

"Bees released from longer distances did not reach their hives until two to three days later," he says. "What took us by surprise was the bee's ability to retain their knowledge of the landscape and directions for several days.

"It's fascinating that the honeybee has a brain the size of a small seed, but it still can keep so much information, and has so many creative ways to survive."

The research was carried out in collaboration with the 'BEE group' at Würzburg Univeristy, Germany, led by Professor Jürgen Tautz. Professor Zhang also thanked The Vision Centre and The Australian National University for their support of this research.

The study "Large Scale Homing in Honeybees" by Mario Pahl, Hong Zhu, Jürgen Tautz and ShaoWu Zhang was published last week in PLoS ONE. It is available here.

Contact for more information:

Prof. ShaoWu Zhang, The Vision Centre and The Australlian National University, ph +86 1357 6076 458 (NB: Please call during China daytime), This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; Mr Mario Pahl, Würzburg University, ph +49 (0)931 31 89176 (NB: Please call in Germany daytime); Professor Ted Maddess, Director, The Vision Centre, ph +61 (0)2 6125 4099 or (04 1144 3415); Mandy Thoo, The Vision Centre media contact, 0402 544 391; Martyn Pearce, ANU Media, 02 6125 5575 / 0415 249 245