Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 160, Issue 5, pp 621–633

Memory and sun compensation by honey bees


  • Fred C. Dyer
    • Department of ZoologyMichigan State University

DOI: 10.1007/BF00611935

Cite this article as:
Dyer, F.C. J. Comp. Physiol. (1987) 160: 621. doi:10.1007/BF00611935


Experiments with two species of honey bees (Apis mellifera andA. cerana) have revealed that bees form a detailed memory of the spatial and temporal pattern of the sun's azimuthal movement, using local landmarks as a reference for the learning. These experiments were performed on overcast days, and consisted of removing a hive from one site in which bees had been trained to find food by flying along a prominent landmark, and displacing it to a similar site in which the landmark was aligned in a different compass direction. On overcast days, bees which flew along the landmark in the new site oriented their waggle dances in the hive as if they had actually flown in the training site. Thus, they confused the two sets of landmarks and set their dance angles according to a memory of the sun's position relative to the original landmarks. Furthermore, the dances changed in correspondence with the sun's azimuthal shift over several hours, even reflecting (approximately) the regular temporal variations in the rate of shift; such features of the sun's course must therefore be stored in memory. The primary mechanism underlying the learning of this pattern is probably similar to that proposed by New and New (1962): bees store in memory several time-linked solar azimuthal positions relative to features of the landscape, and refer to this stored array when they need to determine an unknown azimuth intermediate between two known positions.

During the cloudy-day displacement experiments, celestial cues often appeared to bees in the new site, contradicting the stored information on which they had been basing their dances. Although most bees quickly adopted the dance angle reflecting their actual direction of flight relative to the sun, some later reverted to the original dance angle, indicating that the information on which it was based had remained in memory when the new information was being expressed; other bees performed bimodal dances which expressed both sets of information in alternate waggle runs. The separation in memory implied by these behaviors may reflect a neural strategy for updating a previously stored relationship between celestial and terrestrial references with new information presented by seasonal changes in the sun's course or by newly learned landmarks.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1987