Biologists have long been impressed by the navigation ability of bees and other Hymenoptera. In 1882, Fabre wrote about an experiment with bees and solitary wasps. He caught insects near their nests and carried them in containers to locations, some up to several kilometers distant. Surprisingly, many were able to return to their nest. This was true even if the insects were placed in dark containers and transported by circuitous routes, or tumbled within the containers, all designed to disrupt navigational cues such as compass direction, polarized light and path integration.
How did the insects find their way home? The ability to return to the nest requires that the insects have a “knowledge” of the “district”, a set of visual memories that inform the insect of their position relative to the nest. Once a visual image is acquired that matches a spatial memory, it triggers a sequence of directional movements that will lead the insect to additional landmarks that aid orientation and refine its path home. It is not natural for bees and wasps to be carried long distances. However, long distance orientation would be adaptive when blown far off course by winds.
J.H. Fabre (1882) Nouveaux Souvenirs Entomologiques. Librairie Delagrave, Paris