How Do Bees Navigate: Understanding the Incredible Navigation System of Honey Bees

I’ve always found it pretty amazing how honeybees can fly miles away from their hive or nest, and still be able to find their way back home.  Bees possess special navigation skills that allow them to travel long distances without getting lost. 

But how do bees navigate?  They use the sun, landmarks, their sense of smell, and polarized light to find their way around. 

How Far Do Bees Travel for Food?

One of the important jobs of the worker bee is to forage for food.  To do this, they must often travel far away from their hives in search of pollen, nectar, and water.  

The distance bees travel for food depends on the weather, size of the colony, and the availability of pollen and nectar in the area.  Typically, honey bees will forage within a radius of 3 miles from their hive. 

When resources are scarce, they will go even further.  Honey bees have been known to travel up to 6 miles in search of food.  Of course, if they have an abundant food source nearby, they won’t need to fly so far, as bees prefer to forage from the closest available flowers to conserve energy.

How Do Bees Navigate?

yellow petaled flower with black yellow bee during daytime focus photography

After flying so far away from their hive, they always know how to get back to their colony.  How do bees navigate back to their hive? It’s really quite remarkable how bees use their special senses to find their way around. 

The Sun

Bees primarily navigate using the sun.  Their sense of time is highly developed and are also able to detect the sun, even when it’s hiding behind clouds. Bees use the position of the sun and time to determine the direction they are flying and the distance from their hive and other landmarks. 

By monitoring the position of the sun in the sky, bees know what time it is.  They also use the position and angle of the sun to the horizon to navigate and fly in a straight line. Bees are able to adjust their navigation based on the changing position of the sun and and the angle of it’s light changes.  


Another way bees navigate is by using landmarks.  For bees, landmarks are buildings, trees, or any other large object. They are able to remember and recognize these landmarks and use them to orient themselves and find their way home. 

Landmarks are often used as reference points when flying.  They are able to create a mental map of their environment by using the location of landmarks in reference to their hive or other objects. 


Bees use their sense of smell to navigate by detecting other bees’ pheromones. They can use these pheromones to find a food source or to find their way back to the hive. 

When forager bees find a good food source, they return to the hive and perform a waggle dance, which is their way of giving directions. They also release pheromones, which helps to indicate the location of the food. To find their way home, they can follow a scent trail of pheromones as well. 

Not only do bees smell pheromones, they can also recognize the smell of certain flowers. Bees can learn and remember the flower scents to help them find food sources. 

Polarized Light

Bees detect polarized light to determine the position of the sun.  This is particularly important on cloudy days when the sun is not visible. 

Polarized light is a type of light that vibrates in a single plane.  It is detectable by bees and they use it to locate the sun as well as distinguish different types of surfaces and landmarks. 

Patterns of polarized light are made when light reflects off of smooth surfaces like water or glass. Bees detect these patterns and use it to avoid obstacles when flying.  


Bees usually travel within a radius of 3 miles from their hive to forage for food.  To navigate, they use the sun, landmarks, their sense of smell, and polarized light.