Is a bee as smart as a sat nav?

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1. The navigational skills of a honey bee

We are all familiar with the satellite navigation systems found in modern cars and smartphones. It’s modern technology that we program in a location and get given directions and distances until we reach our final destination. Yet the humble foraging honey bee does all this many times every single day in its daily quest to find the perfect flower to tap for nectar and pollen.

But if that wasn’t miraculous enough, a bee can pass on the exact location of the perfect flower to its colleagues, so they can share in the bounty. Its secret is not using circuit boards and processors it’s the angle of the sun, counting landmarks and electrical fields.

So suggesting that a bee could be as smart as your modern satellite navigation system is not as daft as it may seem.

2. How to find the perfect flower

It is well known that bees have exceptional navigational skills as they can find the same nectar and pollen rich flowers time and time again. Below are some of the incredible techniques they use.

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Honey bees have evolved some very clever and sophisticated ways of finding and communicating with nectar rich flowers. When a bee flies through the air it becomes positively charged, causing a reaction with a negatively charged flower on landing.

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The change in the electrical charge lasts for about 100 seconds after the bee has landed and could be a signal to other pollinators that this flower is currently empty and not to bother landing on it for now.

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It can easily be assumed that bees see flowers in the same way we do, but they don’t. They see in a different range of light called ultraviolet, which flowers utilise to powerful effect.

FRANK FOX / SPL

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Ultraviolet is essentially the secret signal used by flowers to guide the bees into the exact place where the nectar is hidden.

EDWARD KINSMAN / SPL

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A good source of nectar is a gold mine for the colony so it’s essential that if a bee finds one she tells the others how to get there. They do this using an ingenious method of communication called a waggle dance, which we can now listen in on.

Kim Taylor / naturepl.com

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Dancing at a specific angle to the sun tells the other bees which direction the food is in and the duration equals the distance, one second for 750 metres. Even more intriguing is that the more enthusiastic the dancing the better quality of flower.

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3. A bee's day in numbers

Infographic showing a forager bees day in numbers.

4. Why bees make honey

We might naively think that bees make honey for us to spread on our toast in the morning or soothe a sore throat; this is of course not the case. While it’s true we do enjoy the benefits of bees’ honey, they make it for an altogether more important reason: to feed the colony over winter.

They make it from all the sweet sticky nectar collected from flowers after long and complicated foraging trips. This nectar is then mixed with enzymes from glands in the mouth and stored in hexagonal wax honeycombs. Once the water content has reached around 17% the cell is sealed with wax until the bees need it.

A strong hive in a good season could produce two to three times what they actually need; it is this surplus that gets collected, so the bees don’t actually miss it at all! The type of honey made depends on the species of flower the nectar was collected from: oil seed rape makes a very hard honey, whereas garden flowers make a more runny honey.

5. The secret of the honeycomb structure

Marcus du Sautoy explains why bees choose to use a hexagon to build their honeycomb structure rather than the triangle or the square.

Clip taken from The Code first broadcast in 2011.

6. How far do bees travel?

How many miles do you think a colony of bees have to fly in order to make one jar of honey?

500 miles

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500 miles

No, this is incorrect, it is the equivalent of a trip from London to Aberdeen and would produce about 1/100 of a jar.

5,000 miles

You selected

5,000 miles

No, this is incorrect, it is the distance across the Atlantic from the UK to South America and would produce about 1/10 of a jar.

55,000 miles

You selected

55,000 miles

Yes, this is correct, bees fly the equivalent distance of twice round the world to make just one jar of honey.