A Wilder View: Studies show how bees tell time

Posted at 9:33 AM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 11:33:17-05

MISSOULA — This edition of A Wilder View takes a look at the bizarre way that scientists learned bees can tell time.

Bees are the principal crop pollinators in agricultural settings with most of the 75% of cultivated plant species that rely on insects for pollination depend on bees.

Successful pollination of plants by bees requires time management, meaning bees have to know when the sun is out, what specific times flowers have pollen and when flowers open up. In short, bees can tell time.


Historically, scientists first figured out bees could tell time by observing at which point they visited flowers. Scientists noted that bees arrived day after day at the same time to feed on flowers. The bees continued to arrive at the same time even on later days.

The discovery of time-memory in honeybees inspired a set of elegant studies.


Forager honeybees can learn to arrive at a specified location at any time of the day and can learn as many as nine time points with intervals of only 45 minutes between feeder availability.

One of the first convincing pieces of evidence that time memory is controlled by an internal clock came from a jet lag experiment. Honeybees in New York were put on a plane and flew overnight to California. On their first day in California, the bees foraged according to the New York time rather than using local time cues such as the Sun position in the sky.

Additional studies established that time memory is under circadian control. This is attributed to constant conditions, light entrainment, and dark cycles.