A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone. To cure the problem, she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives, hoping to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.
She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?
Honey bees easily find distant food sources
As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. They use the waggle dance to describe food sources that are far from the hive, and they use the round dance—which contains less information—to describe sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.
But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?
Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:
A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.
Close sources are harder to describe
But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem. How can they explain its location?
In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was within tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.
I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.