Researchers have known for decades how worker bees give their brethren directions to a newly discovered food source: by doing a complicated dance on the hive. Now scientists think they know how bees calculate the distance to the pollen cache.
Through a series of experiments, Harald Esch, professor emeritus of biological sciences, along with colleagues in Australia and Germany, determined that bees measure distances by how much scenery buzzes past their eyes during flight.
Esch and his colleagues positioned a feeder 11 meters from a hive and set up an 8-meter tunnel between the hive and the feeder. Bees were trained to fly down the tunnel to the feeder. The inside of the tunnel was decorated with black-and-white patterning, so the bees experienced the equivalent of a rapidly changing environment as they flew.
When the bees returned to the hive, they performed a dance corresponding to a distance of roughly 70 meters. Bees observing this dance then repeatedly flew 70 meters out from the hive, only to find disappointment.
Esch and his colleagues reported their findings in the May 31, 2001, issue of the research journal Nature.