We often get the question from new beekeepers and bee-fans "How do the bees learn what flowers are good or which ones they should visit?" It's not as easy as saying "They just do!" Bee learning and knowledge is a complicated process and in fact we (humans) are still learning about how these amazing insects learn We do understand many of their behaviors, how their biology contributes to learning, how they communicate and how the environment impacts bee learning. The quick answer "Honey bees have a sophisticated method of learning which flowers to visit, involving a combination of their senses and communication skills." We've outlined some of what bees are doing so they can learn.
Visual Cues: Honey bees are equipped with a trichromatic color vision system, enabling them to see a range of colors including blue, green, and ultraviolet light, although they cannot see red. This ability helps them in identifying flowers. Many flowers have evolved distinct ultraviolet patterns, known as nectar guides, which are invisible to humans but act like beacons for bees, guiding them towards the flower’s center for nectar and pollen.
Color Memory and Learning: Bees demonstrate a remarkable ability to learn and remember colors associated with food sources. Experiments have shown that bees can remember a color associated with a sugar reward even after a few days without seeing that color. This indicates that bees have a considerable capacity for associative learning, helping them to identify and return to rewarding flowers.
Taste: Bees use their proboscis to taste nectar and tend to reject strong bitter or saline tastes. Studies on bumblebees, which have similar taste preferences, indicate that bees prefer sweeter nectar and may not taste the pollen until they are in flight, returning to flowers with richer nectar sources.
Communication: Bees communicate their floral findings to recruit other worker bees of the hive to forage in the same area. This communication can involve the famous "waggle dance," where the foraging bee performs a figure-eight dance pattern to indicate the direction and distance of the food source relative to the sun’s position. The intensity of the dance also indicates the quality of the food source.
Electrical Fields: Bees can detect the electric fields that exist between them and flowers. Experiments have shown that bees are more likely to visit flowers with an electric charge, possibly because the electric field moves their bodies slightly, indicating the presence of pollen.
In summary, honey bees learn which flowers to go to through a combination of their ability to see specific colors, remember rewarding experiences, taste preferences, sophisticated communication methods, and sensing electrical fields. This multifaceted approach makes them efficient and effective foragers.