1. Bumble bees play a vital role in the pollination of many crops and wild flowers, and plans for their conservation require a knowledge of the dynamics and spatial scale of their foraging flights, which are, at present, poorly understood.
2. We investigated the foraging range and constancy of two colonies of bumble bees Bombus terrestris L. on a mixed arable farm using harmonic radar, which has a unique capability to record the trajectories of insects flying at low altitude in the field.
3. Foraging bees were fitted with lightweight radar transponders and tracked as they flew to and from the nest to forage. The resulting tracks gave information on length, direction and straightness of foraging routes. Superimposition onto a map of the foraging landscape allowed interpretation of the bees’ destinations in relation to the spatial distribution of forage.
4. Outward tracks had a mean length of 275·3 ± 18·5 m (n = 65) and a range of 70–631 m, and were often to forage destinations beyond the nearest available forage. Most bees were constant to compass bearing and destination over successive trips, although one bee was tracked apparently switching between forage patches. Both outward and return tracks had a mean straightness ratio of 0·93 ± 0·01 (n = 99). The bees’ ground speeds ranged from 3·0 m s–1 to 15·7 m s–1 (n = 100) in a variety of wind conditions.
5. The results support the hypothesis that bumble bees do not necessarily forage close to their nest, and illustrate that studies on a landscape scale are required if we are to evaluate bee foraging ranges fully with respect to resource availability. Such evaluations are required to underpin assessments of gene flow in bee-pollinated crops and wild flowers. They are also required when making decisions about the management of bees as pollinators and the conservation of bee and plant biodiversity.