Scientists have found that honeybees exhibit a characteristic flight pattern to explore their surroundings, even when affected by disease.

  • 12
  • SEP
  • 2016

Honeybees learn the position of landmarks around their hive as they explore, which helps them find their way to rewarding flower patches and home again. When they first venture outside the hive, or when a beekeeper moves them to a new location, honeybees perform ‘orientation flights’ to explore and to identify landmarks efficiently. These orientation flights have an interesting property: the bees alternate between smaller movements of local exploring and occasional longer flights that bring them new areas – a characteristic pattern of exploration known as a ‘Levy flight’, also exhibited by turtles, basking sharks and human hunter-gatherers.

Scientists have shown that honeybee orientation flights stick to this movement pattern, even when the insects were infected with two diseases. To track the flights, the researchers used a harmonic radar with tiny transponders stuck to the bees’ bodies. Scientists carried out the work at Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, alongside colleagues from Queen Mary University of London, University of Sussex, University of Exeter and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. The team published their study in the journal Scientific Reports.

Honeybees are important as pollinators of fruits and vegetables and of wild flowers, but are affected by several diseases. They can cover areas up to 300 km2 in search of flowers. To find out more about how disease affects the movement of bees, the researchers compared healthy bees with those infected either with a microscopic gut parasite called Nosema, or with the deformed wing virus that is spread by varroa mites. Using harmonic radar, they tracked 78 bees as they performed orientation flights.

Although diseased bees still exhibit the characteristic Levy flight pattern, one of the infections reduced their flying abilities. Bees with Nosema infection flew only half as far as healthy ones, covering just a third of the area, though their flight speeds were similar. Deformed wing virus had little effect on the distances the bees flew. The fact that diseases don’t alter exploring behaviour in the same way as, for instance, the time that bees allocate to different tasks, may have a basis in the structure of the bees’ brains.

Dr Stephan Wolf, lead author of the study, said:

“These remarkably robust searching abilities indicate that these are not learned but rather are hardwired in the bees, making them robust against pathogens and possibly other stressors and allowing these bees to still contribute to their colony”.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.