The Bee Compass

Bees on frames in a beehive

Using a dance routine, the bees can tell each other the best place to find nectar, but once they’ve picked up their nectar and pollen, how do they find their way back to the hive? Honeybees have another trick – tiny compasses, in their tummies, that sense the Earth’s magnetic field. There are other creatures that find their way through the earth’s magnetic field and there are a few different types of magnetic materials. One is a type of iron oxide called magnetite, which is naturally magnetic, and we know that lots of creatures have tiny amounts of magnetite in their bodies, the sea turtle being one of them. There’s another type of iron oxide which is paramagnetic. Paramagnetic materials are themselves not magnetic, but they are pulled by magnetic fields. So a non-magnetic paper clip made of soft iron is actually paramagnetic, because it can be pulled by a magnet.

Honeybees have tiny paramagnetic particles in their bodies. These paramagnetic particles are contained in cells inside the bees’ stomachs. Depending on how they are lined up, these paramagnetic particles can swell or shrink as the external magnetic field changes. These particles are attached to the ”walls” of the cells that they are in.  As they change shape, so do the cell walls. Nerves, attached to the outside of these cells, carry signals to the honeybee’s brain. These magnetic cells in the bees stomachs are like tiny compasses. Honeybees are told how to leave the nest and where to go by the buzzing wings and waggling dance of another honeybee. By using the paramagnetic particles of iron oxide, honey bees use this magnetic navigation to find their way back to the hive.

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