Honey Bee GPS

July 10, 2013

I must confess that I love maps and map-based technology. On my smartphone, I have multiple direction-finding apps including Google Earth, iGPS and Google Maps. I also have two GPS navigation devices that I use in the car and when they don’t agree on a specific route—I enlist my smartphone’s map-reading apps to be the tiebreaker.

On a recent family road trip, our children started asking questions about how people drove in the “olden days” before there were cell phones or GPS trackers. After explaining to them that we actually grew up in those days and that they weren’t all that long ago (to several eye rolls from the back seat), we started a conversation about paper maps (remember how they never folded up again to that compact, neat rectangle once they were opened?) and travel atlases.

The discussion then moved on to other forms of navigation including the use of compasses and sextants and from that to routing and orientation strategies other species employ. We finally got around to talking about how honey bees find their ways back to the hive after foraging for nectar and pollen. Honey bee navigation utilizes a sophisticated combination of memory and learning that not only helps them remember the specific shape and color of flowers that have these raw ingredients, but also how to retrieve them. Bees are able to use both celestial and terrestrial markers to help guide their foraging trips and return to the hive.

Through a series of fascinating studies and fieldwork, scientists have learned only in the past decade or two how honey bees learn to relate the sun’s relative position in the sky and the degree of polarized light to the time of day and how they put that information into a three dimensional framework using important geographical landmarks. These landmark memories are apparently stored as images in the bee’s brain, which are organized in a sequence based upon their occurrence during its flights to and from the hive.

Over time, honey bees learn to visit a particular feeding place at a specific time of day and retrieve these memories on a daily basis like clockwork. This amazing temporal memory, based upon their build-in circadian clock, enables bees to optimize their foraging flights to take advantage of when their target flowers are producing their greatest pollen and nectar loads. Now, I just wish my GPS device could somehow allow me to “schedule” my own excursions to avoid the worst of Washington DC traffic!