Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are regularly faced with the task of navigating back to their hives from remote food sources. They have evolved several methods to do this, including compass-directed “vector” flights and the use of landmarks. If these hive-centered mechanisms are disrupted, bees revert to searching for the hive, but the nature and efficiency of their searching strategy have hitherto been unknown. We used harmonic radar to record the flight paths of honey bees that were searching for their hives. Our subsequent analysis of these paths revealed that they can be represented by a series of straight line segments that have a scale-free, Lévy distribution with an inverse-square-law tail. We show that these results, combined with the “no preferred direction” characteristic of the segments, demonstrate that the bees were flying an optimal search pattern. Lévy movements have already been identified in a number of other animals. Our results are the best reported example where the movements are mostly attributable to the adoption of an optimal, scale-free searching strategy.
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