Fringe Box



Beekeeper’s Notes May ’17 – Three Foot or Three Miles?

Published on: 1 May, 2017
Updated on: 1 May, 2017

Hugh Coakley keeps bees in Worplesdon. In the latest of his monthly notes, he talks about a possible flaw in the phenomenal navigational ability of bees.

It is astonishing how far bees will go to and from their hive to forage.

Research has shown that they typically fly 1 – 2 km and even up to 12 km to bring back the shopping. That is 12 km there and 12 km back.

For a tiny creature weighing only about 100mg and with a pollen, nectar or water payload of about 30 mg, how do they do it?

If I was carrying about a third of my body weight, I doubt I could do 100m. And certainly not with any dignity.

The honey bee can only forage at a distance where on average the energy used to travel there and back with food is less than the food energy provided. Even bees have to make a profit.

But the honey bee does travel bewildering distances and with astonishing accuracy.

Moving a hive in my apiary 1

Moving a hive in my apiary at home on a trolley can be difficult and risky. Every couple of days in the evening, I pull the trolley less than three feet towards the desired new location. If I did I in one go and more than three foot, the bees would not be able to locate the hive. It can be quite tortuous but it works. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

The difficulty – and the flaw – comes when the beekeeper wants to move the hive, maybe to take advantage of an oil seed rape crop or the heather bloom or just to a more convenient place in the garden.

In the natural state, honey bees set up home in hollow trees or other massive cavities. The bee can rely upon that sort of home to stay put.

If the hive is moved, what do bees do?

If it is more than three miles, the bees recognise they are in a different place and will generally navigate to the new hive location. If the hive is moved less than three feet in the garden say, the bees tend to mill around the old location but they quickly work it out.

But between the three foot to three mile range, they get lost and will return to the old location or drift off to other colonies. The exception to this is when the bees swarm. Swarming seems to shut off their ‘homing’ instinct and they will adapt to their new postcode immediately.

So, is it a flaw?

If there is a flaw, it is one introduced by cunning beekeepers moving hives. Why should a bee expect its tree home to move? So again, top marks to the clever bee.

On a different tack, I have been taking some photographs of the bees on apple blossom earlier this year – see below.

Nectar glistening on the bees wings

Bees wings glistening.


bee laden with pollen on apple blossom 2

Bee laden with pollen on apple blossom.

You can see the hairs on the bee which are used to collect pollen

You can see the hairs on the bee which are used to collect pollen.

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Responses to Beekeeper’s Notes May ’17 – Three Foot or Three Miles?

  1. Harry Eve Reply

    May 6, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    I never realised that honeybees travelled that far. Perhaps some of Hugh Coakley’s are visiting the Cotoneaster in my garden – it is very popular with honeybees and bumblebees while it is in flower. Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak butterflies also seem to like it but the plant can become a problem as its berries are sown everywhere by birds.

    Having attempted to photograph honeybees I appreciate the clarity of Hugh’s pictures.

  2. Dorothy August Reply

    May 12, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    Brilliant photos of bee on apple (?) blossom!

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