Honey Bees and Homing Senses

The unexplained die-off of honey bees in recent years is reaching epidemic proportions, creating a crisis in conventional fertilization management. Since Colony Collapse Disorder is drastically reducing the numbers of bees in each hive, but without apparently leaving behind bodies, a recent direction of research has been to examine whether the honey bee’s natural homing senses are somehow being interfered with, as one of the possible contributing factors.

In normal conditions, the honey bee navigates using a combination of olfactory senses, visual orientation (which may be communicated through dance language), and electromagnetic orientation. The quality of this navigation allows the bees to communally discover major food sources, and then to find their way home to the hive, even across great distances.

Two forms of dance language are believed to communicate distance and direction of desirable food through a combination of visual and vibrational information. The orientation of the waggle dance corresponds to the sun’s position relative to the food source, the length of the waggles indicates the dictance, and the vigour of the dance shows the quality of the food. The round dance is a shorter version of the waggle dance, indicating that food is much closer. Both of these dances point worker bees in the direction of food with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

In the absence of all odour, honey bees seem to be unable to discover food sources. The odour plume allows the bee to zero in on good sources of nectar and pollens. The distinctive odour of the hive is also a factor in allowing bees to identify their specific hive. Guard bees keep out those bees which do not have the scent of their hive.

Finally, honey bees also use propioception to align themselves with the magnetic field of the earth, in a manner similar to homing pigeons. This method is not fully understood, except apparently through its interruption. It may possibly be linked with the natural electrostatic charge built up by foraging bees to collect pollen.

Some breaking edge research has focused on the effects of short-range electromagnetic (EM) fields on the ability of the bee to navigate. Various studies have found that EM fields ranging from those emitted by a cellphone to those of the Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) seem to cause some degree of disorientation in foraging bees, although this research is so new, it has yet to be properly verified. However, if overriding EM fields do turn out to significantly disrupt the honey bee’s natural navigational systems, we may face a situation where foraging bees leave the hive in search of food, but are unable to find the way back. Without the queen, the foraging bees will quickly die, and without the food brought back by the foragers, the population of the hive will quickly drop. This is exactly the case with CCD.