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Honey Bee Orientation Flights vs Swarming

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Not much strikes more fear in the heart of a new beekeeper than to see a mass of bees flying around the entrance to their hive.   Due to a lack of experience with bee behavior, the first thought is that your bees are about to swarm and leave.  While this certainly can happen, you are likely witnessing honey bee orientation flights not swarming.  This intriguing behavior is quite entertaining to watch-if you understand the purpose.

What are Bee Orientation Flights?

Honey bees doing orientation flights in front of a white beehive entrance image.

While seeing bees flying erratically in front of the hive seems pointless, I assure you – the bees have a purpose.  Once she reaches the age of a forager, our worker will need to fly several miles from the hive to collect pollen and other food sources.

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In fact, worker bees are responsible for all of the tasks that keep the colony productive.  Only they can go out into the world and collect the resources needed for the hive.

Worker bees live for about 6 weeks in the Summer. The first 3 weeks after emergence involve performing in-the-hive tasks.  This includes cleaning, feeding bee brood, building comb, making honey etc.

Honey bees doing orientation flights in front of hive image.

They spend the last half of their lives as foragers in the field. After gathering things needed for their colony – they need to be able to find their way back home.

In the days before they begin foraging, short range flights take place. The duration of these is only a few minutes – though you may see hundreds of bees doing this exercise at one time.

The average age of new bees performing these flights is about 14 days after emergence from their cell.  Younger bees tend to stay closer to the hive while those nearer foraging age fly farther away.

Navigation from and back to the hive is done using the angle of the sun, magnetic fields of the earth and local landmarks too. Landscape features such as an open field, grassland, a hill or a line of trees can all be used by bees to keep themselves on the right course.

Another interesting bee fact, the number of play-flights taken before begin their job in the field ranges from from several to dozens.

Large mass of bees flying near hive image.

What Does an Orientation Flight Look Like?

Exploratory orientation flights look different than regular forager bees working.  While foragers speedily leave and return to the hive, those involved in orientating have a more laid back attitude.

For the first flight, young bees leave the hive and fly out a short distance.  Then, they return to the hive front and sway out and back in a zig zag pattern.

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They are familiarizing themselves with the immediate surroundings of the hive. Over the next few minutes, the bee flies in larger circles around the hive before returning and going inside.

This flight exercise helps the bees memorize the hive location and any nearby landmarks to enable them to return home . Long range orientation flights take place as the bee ages and prepares for work outside.

Of course this is not the only time a beekeeper sees, this type of flight pattern.  Bees will also perform re-orientation flights if the hive has been moved to a new location. Because, now that the hive has moved – the bees must reset their GPS?

And, you may see orientation flight patterns by older bees when a virgin queen is in the hive preparing to take her mating flight.

Drone bees also take short navigation flights in the days preceding mating flights.  They too must learn how to navigate and recognize the hive and any landmarks.

Even the queen honey bee will take a couple of short orientation flights before she flies away on her mating flight. She will return from the far away drone congregation area – hopefully full of stored sperm. Then, she will never leave the hive again unless with a swarm.

How Long do Bee Orientation Flights Last?

Generally taking place on warm afternoons, the flights can last for a while.  However mine always seem to calm down after about 10-15 minutes.  This can seem like a long time if you are worried about their reason for doing it.

It is also a good time for the bees to eliminate their feces.  Bee poop is those little yellow dots all over your car by the way.

If the weather has been rainy for several days, it is common to see bees outside orienting early in the morning – once the sun is out. Weather conditions affect many aspects of hive life.

Is it an Orientation Flight or Robbing?

Until you have some beekeeping experience, it can be difficult to differentiate between normal navigation flights or robbing. 

In orientation flights often called “playflights” the bees involved are rather calm.  They are simply flying around the hive and hovering near the entrance.

However, bee robbing behavior is very different.  Robbing is an aggressive action where the beekeeper sees multiple bees fighting at the hive entrance. 

It is normal for aggressive guard bees to give an incoming bee a thorough inspection.  However, seeing multiple (more than 1 or 2) bees wrestling on the landing board is sign of robbing .

Swarms Perform Re-Orientation Too

Honey bee swarming is a natural occurrence in bee life.  The strong healthy hive divides with about half the population leaving to form a new home. 

Interestingly, something happens when the bees are involved in swarming behavior.  They will reorient to the new nest – even when the original hive is nearby.

Equally interesting to me, if the new swarm hive is moved while bees are out working – they have to ability to return to their nearby original hive.

Most beekeepers have made the mistake of moving a colony a short distance and ending up with lost bees. They can’t seem to go back home -even when the hive is 10 feet away.

In the swarm however, it seems the honey bees have a way to ensure both learn a new location and retain memory of the old home that is nearby too.

If you want to read more about research on this topic – I highly recommend The Buzz about Bees by Jurgen Tautz. You can see that my copy has a lot of marker tags.

Book Buzz about Bees about bee behavior image.

We beekeepers tend to keep several hives in one location – this is not normal in nature. Sometimes bees are confused and return to the wrong bee box.

Because bees do respond to landmarks, having items in your beeyard (post, tree, bush) may aid in helping bees find their way back to the proper hive. This is also a reason to decorate your beehive with symbols or designs.

Interestingly most of the hives in an apiary will hold orientation flights at the same time.  This can be quite loud if you have several hives. 

Why do the bees do this?  Is it because the weather is perfect in some way?  Do the bees hear the neighbors outside and want to go out and play too?  We simply do not know for sure.

However, recent studies using harmonic radar are delving farther into the mysteries of bee orientation behavior.