Honey Bees Know the World is Round and Can Calculate Angles

Daven Hiskey May 31, 2010 31
Bee BeardToday I Found Out that Honey Bees know the world is round and can calculate angles.

It turns out, scientists have figured out how to interpret a Honey Bee’s dance; a Honey Bees dance is where they communicate where to find food, a new home, and things of this nature.  Using this information, an experiment was done called the “Schafberg Experiment”, which was named after the mountain it was performed on.  The only source of food for a colony was placed on the far side of the mountain.  The bees could not fly over the mountain.  However, when they communicated where the food was to be found, they communicated this angle exactly across the mountain, relative to themselves, even though it was an angle they had never flown to the food source, but rather would have had to figure out in their head.

Further evidence of this amazing ability and that they take into account the roundness of the earth is found in their typical food finding dances.  When Honey Bees dance to communicate where a good food source is, they will dance on a comb surface.  The dance consists of the bee turning in circles, on each revolution the bee will bisect the circle at an angle;  the angle with respect to the 12 o’clock represents the angle to fly with respect to the sun.  For instance, if the bee ran from 6 to 12 o’clock, this would mean fly straight forward towards the sun; 7 to 1 o’clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun; 12 to 6 o’clock, fly directly away from the sun.

But it gets even better; these little dances can take a really long time.  So the angle of the sun is going to have changed in the meantime.  The dances might even take all night to communicate.  So while doing the dance, the bee actually calculates the change in angle based on where the sun is right now with respect to the hive.  So if it’s at night when they are doing the dance, they calibrate the angles to associate with where the sun is right now on the other side of the world!  Likewise, when the bees are following the instructions and flying towards the food, they calibrate what they learned based on where the sun is right now vs when the instructions were given.  So basically, bee’s are tiny little math nerds with amazing time keeping abilities and ability to calculate distances without any discernible measuring device… NERDS!!!!

Now in addition to knowing angles, they also need to know how far they need to go in each direction. In order to accomplish this, they wiggle their abdomen’s while crossing the circle.  The more wiggles, the greater the distance; and like with the angles, this is no vague notion of distance.  The bees take and communicate relatively precise measurements on how far they need to go.  Now if the distance to the food source is under about 80 meters, it has been found that the bees will not do the wiggle part of the dance, but will just give the direction to the best spot to go.

But this isn’t the only fascinating things honey bees do.  Today I also found out a boatload of other crazy information about the absolutely amazing Honey Bee:

  • Honey Bees share out jobs based on their age.  For instance, worker bees that are 1-2 days old spend their time cleaning cells, starting with the one they were born in, and keeping the brood warm; from 3-5 days old they feed older larvae;  from 6-11 days old they feed the youngest larvae; from 12-17 days old they produce wax, build combs, carry food, and perform undertaker duties; from 18-21 days old they get guard duty, protecting the hive entrance;  from 22 days on until their death at around 40-45 days, they get to fly from the hive collecting pollen, nectar, water, pollinating plants, and things like that.
  • Honey Bees do die when stinging humans, but not when stinging many other things.  The reason being that the barbs in the stinger get caught in our flesh and rip off the stinger and some of the bee’s insides attached to the stinger, spelling certain doom for the bee.  For stinging insects, for instance, this is not the case and they can continue to sting the insect multiple times without harm to themselves.
  • Honey Bees can fly around 15-20 miles per hour.
  • Honey Bees can’t see red, but they can see well in the ultra-violet;  flowers then end up being like beacons for them as they reflect a ton of ultra-violet light.
  • Honey Bees are not native to the Americas.  They were brought over by Europeans.  Native Americans called Honey Bees “White Man’s Flies”.
  • A Honey Bee colony will fly a total of around 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey.  In addition to this, a hive can produce as much as 60 pounds of honey in a good season with about 25 pounds more than they need to survive the winter.
  • When a colony gets crowded, the bees will decide to make a new queen bee.  The process to do this is as follows:
    • step 1: Bees construct up to 20 wax queen cells
    • step 2: The current Queen lays fertilized eggs in each queen cell.
    • step 3: The young nurse bees feed the young queen larvae with a special rich creamy food called Royal Jelly and extend the cell downwards until it is about 25mm in length.
    • step 4: Nine days after laying, the first queen cell is sealed with a layer of wax.
    • step 5: A large swarm, called the prime swarm, of bees leaves the hive led by the older bees.  The old queen gets starved so she is thinner and able to fly.  The older bees then convince the old queen to join the swarm and they go off scouting for a new place to create a colony.  Amazingly, this swarm will take a lot of breaks along the way, sending out scouts to go search.  Scouts report back and from this information, they chose the best spot to go next.
    • step 6: Eight days later the first virgin queen leaves her cell.  Now, either she then takes an additional small swarm and leaves this hive to start a new one.  Or she locates and kills her sister potential queens by stinging them through the wax wall of their cells.
    • step 7: The young queen flies around and orients herself to her new surroundings.
    • step 8: The queen will take several mating flights and will mate with up to 20 male bees called drones; the drones will die after mating.
    • step 9: Three days later the mated queen will begin to lay fertilized eggs at a rate of about 2000 per day.  Fertilized eggs become female worker bees.  Unfertilized eggs get fertilized by male drones and become new drones.  At any given time there is 1 queen bee, up to 40,000 or so female worker bees and a few hundred male drones.
    • step 10: This queen will stay with the colony for at least a year until a large enough swarm is available to go start a new colony somewhere else.  Though the worker bees only live 40 or so days and drone bees die in mating or are evicted from the hive in the autumn to conserve food as they do no actual work, the queen bee can live up to 5 years.
  • Man Covered in BeesAn average sized colony in the summer will contain over 35,000-40,000 bees and in the winter about 5000 bees.
  • Honey Bees are cold blooded.  Unlike many cold blooded creatures, they do have the ability to generate heat by vibrating their bodies; a bee in flight for instance will typically have a body temperature of about 130 F.  However, if caught in cold rain or the like, a bee can lose the ability to move.  A honeybee hive is typically kept at around 98 F.
  • Honey Bees make honey by taking nectar from flowers and mixing it with enzymes from glands in their mouths.  This is then stored in hexagonal wax honeycombs until the water content has been reduced to around 17%.  Once this happens worker bees cap the combs with a wax seal until the bees need it for food, for instance in the winter time.
  • Capped honey can be kept without spoiling for many thousands of years; the current oldest known honey that is still good being found in the tombs of Pharaohs, put there over 3000 years ago and still tasty.
  • Honey Bees make wax by clustering a bunch of bees together, raising their body temperatures.  Their wax producing glands under their abdomen then slowly secrets slivers of wax.  Other worker bees then harvest these wax strands and take them where they are needed.
  • It takes eating about 6 pounds of honey for Honey Bees to produce about 1 pound of wax.
  • Royal Jelly, the food only fed to the queen and future queen larvae, is a creamy white color and is very rich in proteins and fatty acids.  It is a substance produced by glands in the mouth of young bees.  Because so little is needed (only enough for one bee), it is extremely expensive to buy, though supposedly has many health benefits associated with it.
  • Honey Bees do not hibernate.  They stay very active year round, though in the winter primarily stick to staying inside their hive for warmth as they are cold blooded.
  • Honey Bees are generally considered the highest form of insect life with the most sophisticated colonies and complex behaviors, even among other bee types.
  • Changing queens will change the personality and behavior of bee colonies.  Beekeepers use this fact to control certain bee-haviors among colonies like aggressiveness and enthusiasm for their work. ;-)
  • If the queen bee dies prematurely, the worker bees will immediately start doing what is necessary to create a new one from existing larvae.  As long as there are larvae that are under 3 days old, they can be converted to being a queen bee.  The bees know if the queen dies because they will stop smelling her pheromones.
  • Honey Bees pheromone communication is extremely sophisticated.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Honey Bees do in fact sleep, though there is always a ton of activity in the hive 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Research done in 1988 does show though that occasionally Honey Bees will take a rest and become relaxed, body temperature drops, and become somewhat unresponsive.  Their sleep is nothing like human sleep, but it is considered a form of sleep.
  • It would only take about one ounce of honey to fuel a honey bee for a flight around the world!  Now that’s efficiency.
  • Two million flowers must be tapped to make just one pound of honey (no wonder they need to be so efficient).
  • Smoke triggers bees to stop whatever they are doing and consume as much honey as they can as there may be a need to abandon the hive if there is a fire.  This allows beekeepers to divert their attention so they don’t get swarmed while they do things to the hive.
  • Beekeeping has been going on for about 13,000 years, with the Egyptians particularly having developed very sophisticated means for keeping hives and harvesting honey.
  • A Honey Bee can fly as far as 5 miles from the hive to search for food.
  • Ounce for ounce, honey is one of the healthiest things you can eat and contains many beneficiary medicinal values.  It’s also a decent antibacterial and works extremely well at helping get rid of pink eye and helping burns heal as well as soothing the pain of deep burns.  It has also been shown to help allergies, if you eat honey made from the area you live in.
  • After working 16 hour days making honey for about 20 days of it’s life (1/2 it’s life), a worker bee will only be able to make about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in that lifespan.

Expand for References:

Enjoy this article? If so, get our FREE wildly popular Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 
Print Friendly
Check Out Our New Book and "Nerdy Stuff" TIFO Shop! »

31 Comments »

  1. Spelling Nazi January 18, 2010 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Second paragraph. It’s not “Honey Bee’s” What the hell, people?

  2. Frostfox January 19, 2010 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Wow that is a lot of information I didn’t know. Honey Bees are incredible!

  3. Interminds Events January 20, 2010 at 10:18 am - Reply

    Good Post. I hope you don’t mind me posting here. I love your site, I’ll look forward to your next article

  4. Calli Arcale January 21, 2010 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Do you have a reference for the “healthiest thing you can eat” claim, and the “shown to help allergies” claim? I’m skeptical of the latter, since honey can *aggravate* pollen allergies. I’m skeptical of the former because honey is almost entirely simple carbohydrates (fructose and glucose). It has little nutritional value to humans, which require a much more complex diet than honeybees do. Also, regarding the antibacterial claim, its mostly the lack of water (and high sugar content) that makes it keep so well. It doesn’t have unusual antibacterial properties. And it can contain spores of anaerobic bacteria, which being dormant, are not killed by residing in it. The most infamous is Clostridium botulinium. Raw honey consumption by infants (who are more vulnerable to their young immune systems and relative mass compared to surface area of digestive tract) has been linked to cases of botulism in the industrialized world, where botulism is otherwise uncommon.

  5. Jared Bond June 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    Yep, like the person above me, I immediately was alarmed by the line “honey is one of the healthiest things you can eat”. Honey is virtually pure sugar. If you look on Wikipedia, you can see that a 100g serving (huge) meets only 1 to 3% of the USDA’s daily recommendations for ANY vitamins or minerals. Close to table sugar, about 40% of it is fructose, the carb that scientists are speculating causes or contributes to metabolic syndrome.

    As further evidence that honey is not a health food, the Egyptians had absolutely terrible health.

    Fascinating article and great site, though.

  6. GrammarPolice June 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    Great information, lots of unknown facts here…

    But um,

    LEARN TO APOSTROPHE.

    IT IS = IT’S

    SOMETHING BELONGING TO IT = ITS

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey June 17, 2010 at 9:58 pm - Reply

      It’s called a typo. Does that really need to be said? Apparently…

  7. garbarharyar July 15, 2010 at 6:53 am - Reply

    “A Honey Bee colony will fly a total of around 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey. In addition to this, a hive can produce as much as 60 pounds of honey in a good season with about 25 pounds more than they need to survive the winter.”

    What exactly is the point of this statistic? Having a big number? A bee will fly a couple of kilometers to harvest. I could say ‘the human race will fly a total of .8 light years in it’s entire existence’. But what the hell does it mean? Nothing.

  8. Captain90s July 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    In these comments: People nitpicking because they can’t stand reading something intelligent without finding some fault.

  9. Robert M August 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    Great article! All those who are enjoying dissecting your content should perhaps realize that the onus of researching the facts is, in fact, on them if they don’t trust the author as authority. In fact, you should ALWAYS seek the truth yourself. So what if these claims aren’t cited? Is this college? Do your own research.
    The commenter who questioned the allergy facts based their own objections on feelings and anecdotes! Where is THEIR research? Citation? Possibly wikipedia was mentioned in there. Great source; as my professors say, if you don’t like what wikipedia says, just change it!

  10. God_Jesus March 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    WHY IS THAT CHILD COVERED IN BEES AND WHY IS NO ONE ELSE COMMENTING ON IT?!?!?!

  11. Joe Wright June 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    Right, exactly. I was utterly unable to focus on the article after seeing that disturbing picture.

    • michael June 8, 2013 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      the disturbing picture of the girl covered in bess is actually a beautiful and inspiring result of the youth gaining an interest in one of the issues around the world. seriously? would you be disturbed by that picture if she was holding a kitten? keep in mind kittens can scratch and draw blood and their claws can carry many diseases.

  12. Ivy June 18, 2011 at 1:57 am - Reply

    While alot of this information is amazing, I would like to know where you got the information on the queen bees virgin flight…. She only makes ONE, and during this flight she will mate 15-20 times and collects enough sperm to last her the rest of her life which can be 2-5 years unless she is over worked which then shortens her life to about a year. My father has raised bees my entire life and he learned while living with his grandfather since he was about 6. Unless this is new information… in the last month or so I would double check that. Otherwise I your site very informative. I do have to say I would really check everything now and not take it as true.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey June 21, 2011 at 3:38 am - Reply

      @Ivy: You can read about it various places, among them from the British Beekepers Association, which I believe is where I first got that information, though the link appears to have changed since I wrote that article over a year ago.

  13. Ivy June 18, 2011 at 2:05 am - Reply

    Also in response to Calli arcale, While honey is not by any means a cure all there have been several cases in while honey was applied to a wound and it cured the wound after other known medical treatments did not help. YES, by all means you should not give honey to infants; there is like a 1 in a 1,000 chance that something in the honey will react with the infants immune system. The honey and allergies thing is supposed to be from a local bee keeper as it contain localized pollen. Buying honey from a different area isn’t going to help allergies. Also you need to eat about 1 -2 tablespoons a day for you to notice any effects. The allergy would have to be extremely severe for it to cause a reaction. Also honey is Much better for you to eat the say table sugar as it is completely organic. (raw honey that is) So it is one of the healthier things you can eat. Yes it is sugar, but unless you do nothing all day it is MUCH better for you then drinking a soft drink, even a diet one.

  14. Liz May 4, 2012 at 1:09 am - Reply

    This is a great article, thanks very much for posting! They’re really amazing animals

  15. Salma March 23, 2013 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    That’s why a whole chapter of the Quran is dedicated to bees or at least part of the chapter. They are a miracle for us to see.

Leave A Response »