Honeybee Food Foraging : Where? Why? How Far?

I get asked a lot at market: how do you know that the bees actually went to “that” honey. “That” honey may be Buckwheat, Alfalfa/Wildflower, Fireweed/Wildflower, or Wildflowers of particular regions in Washington State.  Really it is all about flight distance, desirability, and availability.

How Beekeepers Figure The Honey Source
(without laboratory tests)

Honeybee with lots of pollen : Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Honeybee On Dandelion

  • Bees tend to fly about 2.5 miles from the hive
  • Bees have been known to go to 7 miles, but few are ever found beyond 4 miles from the hive. The further they travel, the energy they use begins to be greater than the energy they get from the distant forage.
  • Bees tend to eat what’s right in front of them In that way, they’re rather like us: there is undoubtedly a great Indian restaurant in Seattle (2.5 hours away), but I tend to head down to Bellingham (45 minutes away).
  • Bees will fly further if the immediate forage isn’t their favorite: not enough nectar, pollen, or protein – bees tend to over-fly alfalfa because they apparently never been not all that keen on alfalfa (even before the advent of 21st century agriculture).

Bees check out plants by sight and smell, but it’s way different from ours: large swatches of color are easier to see than a single brilliant plant, and smells can tickle their “toes” and legs.

Mono-Floral Honeys

These are the ones that might say “Buckwheat” or “Fireweed” or “Chamisa”

This means that the primary floral source for that honey was the flower on the label.

There are probably a few other flowers in the honey but factors can override the lesser flowers including:

Rabbit Brush

Chamisa by Stephen Baker, BLM via wikimedia commons








Chamisa (aka Rabbit Brush)

  • Other flowers are so minimal their nectar is diluted under the primary flower.
  • Other flowers are so light you’re not going to taste them (buckwheat honey covers any light honey)
  • Very few flowers are in bloom at the same time in the area (Big Leaf Maple and Fireweed are types here in Washington state)

Fireweed In Bloom by By Rosendahl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons











Bees, Beekeepers, Farmers, And Pesticides

Beekeepers and farmers consider another aspect of foraging distance to be equally, and potentially, more important. This is the distance of the hives from pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Bee-Harmful Pesticide Avoidance Distances

How far away do hives need to be from a potentially harmful location?

  • This location may be fields using neonicotides (banned in the EU and in some areas in the US, but still used in abundance US agriculture), or an area sprayed with other pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, that are harmful to honeybees.
  • This harm from these poisons may be immediate, as in the bees are sprayed and they die. The harm can also be pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in stored pollen and nectar. In these instances, the bees die when they eat these tainted stores later in the year.

Total Pesticide Avoidance Distances:

Beekeepers may be in search of stands of untreated bee forage. The mileage between a seemingly pristine meadow and sprayed crops can be critical. The 2.5 mileage the bees fly from their hive is an average – so some bees may be foraging further – into areas of pesticides.

Separation of GMO from non-GMO crops and wild plants:

  • Farmers who want to keep their seed crops free of Genetically Modified genes can see all pollinators as a benefit or a problem.   Cross pollination by foraging bees hauling pollen from a GMO plant to a similar, but non-GMO plant can cause havoc, and potentially destroy non-GMO’s farmers’ operations.

In all of the above cases, hives would have to be in the center of about 25 square mile pesticide-free area to be pretty sure they are not going to encounter harmful chemicals.

To be absolutely certain that the hives and/or fields are isolated from pesticides and/or GMO pollen that distance expands to 196 square miles.

How Far Honeybees Might Fly: The Math

Place a hive in the center of a square Draw a 2.5 mile line “east” and another “west” : you get a 5 miles.

Do it again north and south to get 5 miles

2.5 + 2.5 = 5 miles
5  X   5 =   25 square miles

You could knock off a little on the four corners because it really should be a circle

But some bees fly further – up to seven miles:

This gives 14 miles per side or 196 square miles. Depressing isn’t it? Not the math, the distance – if you’re trying to get as close to a “pure” varietal honey or get away from agriculture.

How Do We Know How Far Honeybees Fly?

Back in the 1920’s J.W. Eckert conducted a three-year study on bees foraging in Wyoming. The area had “islands” of irrigated areas – there was little to no forage beyond the irrigation. The bees were placed at increasing distances from the forage, and then monitored for honey and pollen collection. The results, published in 1933, were incredibly specific:

Honeybees Flying:

  • 1 mile   covered over   2,000 acres (about 3 square miles)
  • 2 miles covered over   8,600 acres (about 13.5 square miles)
  • 3 miles covered over 18,092 acres (about 28 square miles)
  • 4 miles covered over 32,166 acres (about 50 square miles)

60 years later, in 2008, in their research entitled “Crop Pollination” Hoopingarner and Waller came up with slightly different numbers: their honeybees could cover 12,000 acres during flights reaching 2.5 miles from their hives. Their bees also flew 5 to 8 miles to collect forage they found attractive.

It’s all down to flight distance and the attractiveness of the forage to the bees – a bit of working knowledge, observation and the hard work by researchers and scientists.

Reading Honeybee Research Can Be Fun

An aside: I like research and enjoy reading the papers that result from scientific studies, but at times it seems like translating.

“Optimal foraging theory predicts that animals will behave in such a manner as to maximize their energy intake (benefit) with the minimal output of energy (cost).”

Simply Stated: Animals want food that gives them more energy than they used to get the food.

I can so relate.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey here is chilly, but not snowy – I’m happy to say – Maple Falls, Washington.  The bees here are all in cluster although they all popped out about a week ago when we had an unseasonably warm day of 50F – break out the bathing suits….

About Bean

I am the beekeeper at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, near Maple Falls, Washington. My bees fly from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives in the foothills of Mt. Baker (the second most glaciated volcano in Washington). I sell the raw honey my bees make, as well as honey produced by Washington beekeepers who are friends - the emphasis is on raw honey from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives. I also make and sell Beeswax Salves. You can find me at the Ballard Farmers' Market in Seattle on Sundays from 10-3. When not with the bees, you'll most likely meet me up some mountain trail, pinhole camera and digital camera slung over my shoulders, and my pack goats trailing behind me.
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