honey bee behavior

The remarkable distance honey bees actually fly

A honey bee collecting water. Honey bees will fly as far as necessary to find water.

Honey bees fly as little as possible but as far as necessary to find the supplies they need, including nectar, pollen, water, and plant resins.

Like the rest of us, honey bees try to conserve energy. If all the supplies you need are just outside your door, you don’t need to go further. The same applies to honey bees: they fly as far as they must but no further.

However, keep in mind that food isn’t the only resource honey bees need. They also collect water, pollen, and plant resins for making propolis. When calculating flight distances, we must remember to consider all the items they need and the distance to them. For example, when pollen is plentiful close to home but nectar is not, the nectar foragers will make longer trips while the pollen foragers stay closer to home.

Most honey bees can fly further than they do

Studies have shown that most honey bees stay within a two-mile radius of their hive. But when scientists released and recaptured tagged bees, they discovered that they are capable of flying much longer distances. Extremes of five, six, or more miles have been recorded.

At some point, however, it takes so much energy to fly long distances that the bees use nearly all the nectar or water they collect. The maximum distance that makes collection worthwhile depends on many things, including the climate and weather. Variables like wind, rain, or excessive heat can make those long trips dangerous, too.

Not all hive locations are equally rich

If a hive is placed near a large body of water, an airport, or an industrial complex, bees will have to fly further from home to visit the same number of flowers. Roads, parking lots, shopping centers, and woodlands can also pose a problem.

I have a friend who keeps her hives on the shore of Puget Sound. Although her bees have a beautiful view, fully half the land surrounding the hives is covered in saltwater. Given a uniform distribution of flowers, these water-bound bees will need to fly more miles to get the same amount of supplies.

Colonies close to flowers are more efficient

When colonies live close to floral resources, they can fill their larders more quickly. Without a lot of travel time, honey bees are much more efficient. In fact, all of us are. Travel time can be a real productivity killer for bees and for humans.

When we drop our hives in the middle of an alfalfa field or almond orchard, flying time is minimal. Some of the largest producing colonies on record were in places like the Dakotas, centered within miles and miles of clover fields. The same applies to oilseed rape fields in Canada, yellow as far as you can see.

The advantage gained by scout bees

Scout bees, those assigned to find rich sources of food and water, also keep colony efficiency high. They prevent wasted trips much like the human scouts who searched for mountain passages ahead of the wagon trains.

By keeping the majority of the bees close to home while a few scouts fly further afield, colony energy expenditure can be kept at a minimum. The scouts who find something valuable will note its location and then go back to the hive to announce the position and richness of the find.

When many colonies are close together, honey bees must fly further

If too many hives are placed close together, the bees will be forced to fly further from their hives. Once the bees have emptied the local shelves, so to speak, they must go further to find more supplies.

Growers who rent hives for pollination services are well aware of these problems. Without enough hives, the entire crop won’t get properly pollinated. But with too many hives, the bees you paid for end up pollinating someone else’s crop.

Commercial pollination is a tough job in many ways, and calculating the right number of hives for any crop is definitely tricky. The geometry of the fields and orchards, the strength of individual hives, and local weather conditions all play a part.

Honey bees prefer all the flowers to be the same

One thing new beekeepers soon learn is that honey bees prefer lots of flowers of the same type. We call this preference floral fidelity. When we plant home gardens with multiple small patches of different flowers, the honey bees will often overlook them.

Bees with high floral fidelity like to dedicate an entire foraging trip, or an entire day, to one type of nectar. So if you have only two or three square feet of a particular plant, it generally won’t attract honey bees. Other bees, though, including bumble bees, may be perfectly happy with your garden.

Pollen collectors fly the least

Many more plants produce pollen than produce nectar. In fact, nectar is scarce in comparison. All the grasses produce pollen, and many catkin-bearing trees produce pollen, such as cedars, alders, and birch.

The types of pollen that comes from these plants are generally of lower quality for bees and are usually missing some of the essential amino acids bees need. But when bees collect it along with other sources of pollen, it can be part of a complete diet. Considering that honey bees fly considerably fewer miles to collect it, such pollen is probably a wise choice.

I often see bees frolicking in these pollens, especially early in the year when nectar is scarce. The bees store these in the hive and then add other more balanced pollens as they come available.

How high do honey bees fly?

Not very high. Similar to horizontal distances, honey bees have the ability to fly higher than they do.

Honey bees do much of their navigation by sight. They definitely remember landmarks, which helps them find their way home. Since they like to see where they are going, there is no point in being too high off the ground.

Most drone congregation areas arise about 15 to 115 feet off the ground. Some researchers have speculated that traveling bees, even workers, prefer this range for long-distance flying. However, tall buildings, trees, and other obstacles probably cause variations in flight height.

When do honey bees fly the furthest?

Individual honey bees fly the furthest when supplies run low, such as during a nectar dearth. Some may actually fly further than is beneficial, using up most or all of their haul before getting home.

At the same time, some may not even try to forage. Some beekeepers believe that the great amount of bearding you see during a nectar dearth are foragers that chose to stay home rather than aimlessly waste energy.

A lesson for the rest of us

So next time you drive five miles for something you could get in two, think of the honey bee. Efficiency is something our planet desperately needs!

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  • I notice the floral when I’m driving from one county to another. One will have a variety & abundance of flowering plants and then a few miles down the road where the land opens up to fields of commercial farms, there is scarcely anything. As a beekeeper, it seems you notice this more than you w/otherwise. I always think this w/be a good place for the bees & this w/be a bad place. Huron County seems to be a wasteland. Ashland County a paradise. I think Huron bees fly all the way to Ashland to get their resources.

    • Debbie,

      I’ve noticed that, too, and I think you’re right about beekeepers. Because they have an interest in things like flowers in the landscape, they notice them more than most other people.

  • Some of us are very efficiently lazy, but it doesn’t help the planet ’cause I have Amazon driving all over the place for me.
    (Also, I’m just here to sign up for the comments.)

    • Roberta,

      I would rather see one Amazon truck go to 100 houses than 100 people each driving to three or four different stores to find the thing they want.

    • Al,

      Well, that’s not good; I’ll check my wording. That’s a bad thing about blogging: I don’t have an editor peeking over my shoulder.

  • As you’ve often noted, there are many reasons why bees will choose one source location over another, regardless of what we think they should be thinking. Drives me crazy when a huge expanse of white clover is in lush bloom, right next to my hives, yet I see them take off and swoosh away in other directions. I always imagine some poor scout bee coming back from a 2-second flight, stomping her feet and shouting (in bee) “I don’t care how good a dancer she is! I’m tellin’ you, THIS stuff is right out the front door! You could FALL OFF the landing board and you still couldn’t miss it!”

    Also, re spacing, you wrote “two many hives” – which adequately describes MY apiary 🙂 but is probably not what you meant.

    • Thanks for the correction. Much appreciated!

      We are always told that honey bees go after the sweetest nectar because it’s less work (more efficient) to cure something that’s already pretty concentrated. So, you’d think that clover would sway them. But they’re bees, so what can I say?

  • I live in Seattle and have two colonies of Carniolan honey bees. In my three years of beekeeping, I have observed that the bees’ attraction to certain flowers in my garden can vary from year to year and even from week to week within seasons. I assume that this variation is caused by the relative abundance of nectar in the gardens and greenspaces around my neighborhood. I have also noticed that some flowers experience a “ripening” effect, where it takes them a while to produce nectar in quantities that will attract the bees to them, so some flowers I see being ignored one week will be mobbed by bees just a few days later.

    There are three main wild nectar crops in my area that local beekeepers obsess over: maple, blackberry, and knotweed. The blooms of these crops are staggered such that they loosely span the bees’ active season, but there can be weeks-long gaps between blooms that cause beekeepers to worry about dearths. To reduce the impact of nectar and pollen dearths on my colonies, I plant a variety of flowers in my garden such that there will be something blooming throughout the season. If I notice the bees neglecting certain flowers in my garden (flowers I know they like) I take that as a good sign, because it means that food is abundant elsewhere. In the meantime, those flowers are available for wild bees, which also pollinate my food plants and are interesting to watch.

    Thanks for hosting this excellent blog, Rusty.

    • David,

      That all makes sense to me. I like to think of nectar collection in terms of preferences. As a kid (or maybe even now) if you offered me potatoes or green beans, I would take potatoes. But if you offered green beans or lima beans, I would take the green beans. So the selection (or not) of green beans depends on what the alternative is.

      I think honey bees do the same. As flowers come in and out of bloom, the choices change. What was once popular can become less popular when something more interesting comes along. It accounts for why some people get a great bee response to a bee planting and another person gets no response to the same planting. Without knowing the complete menu available to a particular colony at a particular time, it’s impossible to predict what they will go for.

  • It’s true that honeybees love oilseed rape (canola) fields in Canada and feed heavily on them when they are in flower. The problem is they are only in flower for 2-3 weeks in a season, and if they are the only crop around it’s boom and bust. Also, canola growers in Canada use a lot of neonicotinoid pesticides, so in addition to the nectar, they are getting poisoned. So maybe not such a good thing.

    Love your blog.

  • And thus, you see that there is almost never, such a thing as “organic” honey. Unless one owner has his or her colonies in a place where they control over 6 square miles of “organic” land, the bee girls are flying and gathering non organic stuff. That said, all honey is a gift from God.

    • Renaldo,

      Exactly right. That circle with a radius of 6 miles contains 72,382 acres. No one I know controls that much land!

  • Our 2 hives are in Chicago about a 1/4 mile from Lake Michigan on a 13-story roof. There is a large variety of flowers in Lincoln Park and we have a large number of honey locust and maple trees in the park. Our building is senior housing and the residents love the wonderful honey harvested this year. We have trees and gardens on the 6th floor and at ground level. How do other roof-top hive owners help the bees orient? It seems that our honey production is low. I suspect our vendor did not get the hive off to a fast start with enough sugar syrup. Any other roof-top apiary hints would be appreciated. I’m fearful the wind is just too much for our girls to produce regular quantities of honey.

    • Al,

      I think lots of wind could make a difference. It takes more energy to fly if you’re fighting a headwind or crosswind. I’ve never kept bees on a rooftop, but somebody might chime in with ideas.

    • I am in suburban Chicago, but I have worked with a beekeeper named Bill Whitney who I found very generous with his knowledge and experience and, I believe, also does rooftop hives in the city. He might be a good resource for you, and his contact info is readily available on the internet. Have a great day!

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