Honey bees are marvelous creatures with a simple but effective community structure.
Each hive has one queen who is responsible for laying eggs. She can live up to three or four years! There are many worker bees as well, all of whom are females who do not reproduce. During summer they live for several weeks, while in winter they can live up to a few months. The only males in the hive are drones who are there for mating purposes. They don't live very long.
For about the first 20 days of a bee's life they stay inside where it's warm and cozy, cleaning cells and feeding other bees and larvae.
Before these young bees can leave the hive to collect nectar, pollen, water, and materials to make propolis*, they need to figure out their place in the world. Their first flight into their greater habitat is called their orientation flight.
It's an exciting time in a bee's life. They pick a warm, windless afternoon, if possible, to take their first flight. They're seeing their surroundings for the first time, getting to know the feel of wind and sun, what their home looks like from the outside.
As they test their wings, they make short zig zag flights back and forth to the hive. As they feel more comfortable, they make greater circles, moving a little further away from the hive each time. They take note of the landscape and landmarks as they go, cues that will help them remember how to return to the hive after harvesting materials. And then they poop.
Bees are very clean creatures, and until the orientation flight, the young bees have not yet had a chance to relieve themselves (20 days!). So they take advantage of the great outdoors. Imagine the relief.
After 15 to 30 minutes of flying, they return to the hive for the day. The position of their nest entrance is very important, which is why we always make sure they have a clear flight path to their front door.
After a few days of orientation flights the bees are ready for real foraging flights. They will bring back pollen and water for the next generation of honey bees, little creatures who are so very important to our way of life.
For further reading, check out this great source on orientation flights:
For more information about Gunther Hauk and his work to save honey bees:
* Propolis is like bee glue, made of sap or sticky plant matter, mixed with saliva and beeswax, used to fill in unwanted holes inside the hive. Kind of gross, but pretty cool.
Here are some of our honey bees enjoying an orientation flight in December: