Navigating Through Honey Bee’s Orientation Flights

Most of us have asked this question before: Are my bees swarming? Then we receive an answer from the experts saying, “They could be having orientation flights”. As a beginner you would be wondering, “Bees have orientation flights?” 

Through those many questions, we’ll debacle what is the difference between swarming and orientation flights and why bees do this. 

“Flight School” 

So you now have your first ever hive, either you bought them or captured them as a swarm. The day after relocating, your bees will start to come out and fly around the new hive. By observation, you then start to panic, thinking that your new hive is going to swarm or abscond eventually. 

There is no need to panic! This behaviour is completely normal. It’s almost like a good sign, it’s one of the things that shows us that the bees are settling in their new home. When a forager is ready to set up for her first flight, she will make a few orientation flights first. This happens when the colony has been relocated or was given a new hive (i.e collected swarm, hive was moved). 

It is mostly believed in the industry that young bees conduct orientation flights together in groups, especially more so on warm sunny days. 

Why do honey bees conduct orientation flights? 

To give a little background, worker bees job’s are age related. We’ve discussed the different jobs a worker bee goes through by age in our previous blogs here. When the worker bee reaches maturity and gets promoted to a forager, they then start to fly out of the hive to collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis.

To do this, they need to get familiarised with the environment they’re in: the landscapes, landmarks, food resources and the like. They train themselves by taking orientation flights prior to their first foraging flights. This is when they fly in front of the hive, just a short distance away from the hive, flying in circles and above and below the hive. These flights usually take place during warm afternoons, when no winds occur. Research has also shown that foragers take these flights as an opportunity to extract their faeces. 

If you’re ever worried about your bees being able to return to their home, fanning bees will come into the picture. This is how you usually differentiate swarming and orientation flights, or even robbing! With robbing, you’ll see a lot of fighting. Robber bees tend to look darker than your residents, just keep that in mind.

Orientation Flights due to swarming

When a colony swarms, it is more likely to find and set up a new home. They are now faced with the challenges of a new hive location and the new foraging field. The bees will start to reorient themselves as much as how they did their first orientation flights. 

If the new location is near the previous foraging field, the bees will learn the location of the new hive while having the knowledge around the previous foraging field. If they are relocated in a completely new location, they will reorient in a more similar way as to how they would conduct their first orientation flights. 

Orientation Flights due to relocation by a beekeeper

Beekeepers often relocate their hives, all for good reasons. Commonly, hives are relocated due to commercial reasons or even when the original location does not provide any nectar or pollen resources. If relocating within your backyard, there shouldn’t be too much of a hassle for your bees. However, moving the hive to an entirely new location is different. Depending on how you move your bees, you’re likely to lose some of them. The success of re-orientation will depend on the experience of the forager bees. Worker bees will learn how to navigate the new foraging field and will depend on the availability of foraging areas. Some of the older foraging bees will have to orient themselves as much as they did the first time they conducted their orientation flights. Due to the entirely new environment, there will be no familiar landscapes and they will have to discover where resources are. 

Recently, experienced beekeepers have been noticing a number of swarms even though we’re approaching autumn. Thanks to Perth’s mediterranean climate, our autumn is a mix of warm days and cold nights. You could say that’s a perfect temperature especially now that we’re isolating! Hopefully this gives more insight into the bee’s behaviour. 

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