The Bee Compass

Insects differ from people in the ways that they sense the environment. Even for senses shared in common, such as taste, odor, vision, hearing and touch, the range of signals that insects can detect frequently differs from the range of signals that humans can detect. For example, most insects can detect UV light, but not red light; whereas humans readily detect red light but entirely miss patterns clearly present in the Ultraviolet range.

Humans lack certain senses such as the ability to detect polarized light and the ability to detect the magnetic field of the Earth (without a compass). Some insects possess these senses and it is difficult for us to imagine how those senses might be experienced.

Honey bee collecting nectar

In addition to detection of polarized light and using polarization to orient relative to the sun, honey bees have a built in compass capable of detecting the earth’s magnetic field. The ability to sense magnetic fields has been demonstrated by magnetic field effect on honey bee waggle dance (used for communication), orientation and honeycomb construction. The exact nature of the magnetic field sensor is unknown and is under investigation. The ways in which honey bees use magnetic field information is not clear. Magnetic field detection may be overlaid on the visual system as an additional mechanism for successfully traveling to foraging sites and returning to their nest.

Understanding the mechanism underlying biological magnetic field sensors could lead to improvement in human navigation tools. It could also help us understand potential effects of anthropogenic (human created) magnetic fields (such as electrical transmission lines) on bees and other animals. For honey bees, the ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field is important to their success.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in behavior, Biomaterials, by jjneal, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

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