Do nurse bees make orientation flights? Will dumping them out away from your hive prevent them from finding home? We've written a great article on this, click read more below to check it out.
In reading a post on a beekeeping Facebook group I belong to, I came across the question of whether nurse bees made orientation flights or not. The question was also asked "how come people dump bees out a few yards away from hives thinking they cant find their way back?"
Let's dive into this and see if we can make sense of whether bees of any caste make orientation flights, at what point they make them, and if a bee of any certain age can find its way home.
Do All Bees Make Orientation Flights, Even Nurse Bees?
Yes! All bees make orientation flights starting at about 3 days post-emergence, and up to about 14 days post-emergence. Bees actually make more than one flight and up to about 18 flights to get oriented. In a study though, no correlation was found between a bee's age and the number of flights it required to orient itself to its hive. This shows that there is a large spectrum of "intelligence" across individual bees as some bees required many more flights than some others. One bee may only need 9 flights, while another, a less blessed bee, might need 18 flights to get well oriented.
Can Bees Find Home After A Single Orientation Flight?
The answer to this question is a bit more complicated. The answer depends on the "intelligence" of that individual bee, as discussed in the previous paragraph. It also depends on exactly how far away the bee is from home when compared to both his or her intelligence and the number of orientation flights he or she has taken.
In a study, researchers found that there is a direct correlation between the number of orientation flights taken and the distance at which bees were released from the hive on whether or not they could successfully return home. In the study, no bee had a higher than 60% chance to find home after one orientation flight when released 200 meters away from the hive. This success chance quickly dwindled to 0% when released farther away.
How does a bee's individual intelligence affect its ability to find home?
There is a range of intelligence in individual honey bees. On average a honey bee has about 960,000 neurons in its brain. Compare this to about 1,000,000 for cockroaches, 1,200,000 for carpenter bees and 4,300,000 for a small lizard called an Anole, what we here on the east coast of the US call a "chameleon", though this is a misnomer.
If honey bees only have on average 960,000 neurons, and a single bee ends up with 1,000,000 and another ends up with 920,000, then you can quickly see that is entirely in the realm of possibility for a single bee to be 10% smarter, or 10% dumber than another bee. The fewer neurons you have, the fewer you can afford to lose before it affects the bee's ability to learn and subsequently increases the number of orientation flights it might require.
The Answer To The Question "Do Nurse Bees Make Orientation Flights?"

Yes! Nurse bees do make orientation flights, but during their tenure as nurse bees, are probably only able to make 1 or maybe a few flights, and none of those occurring before about 3 days post-emergence. Nurses that were only able to make one flight will have a harder time finding home, and all nurse bees under 3 days post-emergence old will have no chance to find the hive.
Why would anyone dump bees out of their hive several yards away from the hive location?
This is actually what prompted the original question on the Facebook group. The accepted fix for a laying worker is to dump the entire hive out on the ground 20 yards or more away from its location. All of the bees will be able to find home again, with the exception of the laying worker. Though this is due to the fact that she is heavy and laden with eggs, not as the poster thought and couldn't find home because she was a nurse bee. Nurse bees are more than capable of finding home when dumped out within 20 yards of their home hive.
Capaldi & Dyer (1999) The role of orientation flights in the homing ability of honey bees. J. Exp. Biol. 202:165-1666.

Capaldi et al., (2000) Ontogeny of orientation flight in the honeybee revealed by harmonic radar. Nature 403:537-540.

Degen et al., 2015