Why Honeybees Are So Confused by Mirrors


| LAST UPDATE 04/21/2022

By Stanley Wickens
honeybees mirrors flying
Olivier TUFFE / 500px via Getty Images

Honeybees are responsible for a large part of the pollination process, going from flower to flower all year round. They're such an important part of our environment that humans would likely struggle to survive without them. But sometimes, they actually find it hard to keep themselves going - strangely, when there are mirrors around.

An experiment conducted in 1963 discovered something peculiar about these little creatures when they were trained to fly over a lake. They only succeeded in making it to the other side if there were waves and ripples on the water's surface. On the other hand, if the surface was smooth, the bees would suddenly descend into the water below them. At the time, the results of the experiment indicated that honeybees navigate while flying with the help of visual clues. A recent study has delved deeper into the strategies these little insects use to fly through the air.

honeybees mirrors confused crash
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Findings from new research similar to the 1963 experiment suggested that honeybees use the ground speeding below them to control their altitude while they fly. On the floor and ceiling of a 220-centimeter-long (87 inches) rectangular tunnel, researchers placed appropriately-sized mirrors that could easily be covered to appear as walls. When the mirrors were covered, the bees easily flew across the tunnel while maintaining a constant altitude. Similarly, when the ceiling was turned into a mirror, the bees also made their way to the other side of the tunnel with no problem. However, the trouble began when the floor became a mirror...

In this case, the floor appeared twice as far away from the bees as it actually was. Around 40 centimeters (15 inches) into their flight, the bees would slowly lose their altitude until they crashed into mirror below them (don't worry - no one got hurt!). The researchers then decided to uncover both the ceiling and the floor of the tunnel, turning them both into parallel mirrors. Under these circumstances, the bees made it 8 centimeters (3 inches) into their journey before crashing into the glass below them. The poor bees, perceiving the ground to be farther away than it actually was, began to descend only to find themselves meeting the floor twice as soon as they thought. Turns out there may be some truth to the warning not to look down when you're at high altitudes - sometimes doing so may make your fall inevitable - at least, so was the case of these poor honeybees...

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