Honey bees have a lot of interesting behaviors. One of my personal favorites (I admit there are many) is the afternoon ritual of orientation flights. This is essentially a flight school for the new bees that have never been on a foraging flight to practice flying as well as take an opportunity to memorize their home so they can find their way back.
The way they orientate to their new found home is quite interesting. They do it by venturing out of their hives then fly in a zigzag pattern right in front of their homes. They’re memorizing the location of the sun relative to their home as well as the way their home looks and what’s around it so they can find their way back.
You’ll see young bees performing this unusual flight pattern in the mornings and evenings most commonly. Beginner beekeepers often worry that their bees are swarming during these orientation flights because of all the activity around the hives. Orientation flights take place when the sun is shining so bees can see their hive location relative to the sun. Orientation flights are more visible and noticeable in late spring when young bee populations are high. Young bees, above the age of 20 days, fly above their home location before taking 180 degrees turn facing their hives to orientate to their landscape. When the young bees are the age of 20 days they are old enough to perform their foraging tasks after familiarizing themselves with their homes and this is their first step towards becoming productive foragers. An orientation flight is usually performed by young and vibrant bees that have never been on a foraging experience – these bees are memorizing where their home is and what it looks like before they begin their longer, taxing foraging flights. In terms of time duration, an orientation flight can last for between 30-60 minutes before the flight school bees return to their hives without resources for the hive.
As a new beekeeper, it is easy to confuse the orientation flight with swarming, mating flight or robbing flights. The good news is that you can tell the difference between the different types of flights by paying more attention to how the honey bees behave around these flights as well. When performing orientation flights, honey bees tend to behave in a very calm manner while hovering around their hives – usually within 2-3 feet of the hive. They are flying quickly but without an obvious purpose, you won’t see a lot of landing, clumping, or aggression towards other bees. It looks more like a localized swarm of bees flying right in front of their hives in a very playful manner. It’s often called “play” flight as well. Swarming, on the other hand, can look similar but is on a much bigger scale, more of a 10-20 feet radius of flying bees.
Honey bees are quite an interesting species, don’t you think?