Honeybees Learn Landscape Features during Exploratory Orientation Flights

Curr Biol. 2016 Oct 24;26(20):2800-2804. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.08.013. Epub 2016 Sep 29.


Exploration is an elementary and fundamental form of learning about the structure of the world [1-3]. Little is known about what exactly is learned when an animal seeks to become familiar with the environment. Navigating animals explore the environment for safe return to an important place (e.g., a nest site) and to travel between places [4]. Flying central-place foragers like honeybees (Apis mellifera) extend their exploration into distances from which the features of the nest cannot be directly perceived [5-10]. Bees perform short-range and long-range orientations flights. Short-range flights are performed in the immediate surroundings of the hive and occur more frequently under unfavorable weather conditions, whereas long-range flights lead the bees into different sectors of the surrounding environment [11]. Applying harmonic radar technology for flight tracking, we address the question of whether bees learn landscape features during their first short-range or long-range orientation flight. The homing flights of single bees were compared after they were displaced to areas explored or not explored during the orientation flight. Bees learn the landscape features during the first orientation flight since they returned faster and along straighter flights from explored areas as compared to unexplored areas. We excluded a range of possible factors that might have guided bees back to the hive based on egocentric navigation strategies (path integration, beacon orientation, and pattern matching of the skyline). We conclude that bees localize themselves according to learned ground structures and their spatial relations to the hive.

Keywords: displacement; exploration; harmonic radar; honeybee; learning; navigation; orientation flight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal*
  • Germany
  • Homing Behavior*
  • Learning*
  • Orientation, Spatial*