The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a beeline straight?

Q: Why does the term “beeline” refer to a straight line even though bees zigzag from flower to flower?

A: The noun “beeline,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains, refers to “a straight line between two points on the earth’s surface, such as a bee was supposed instinctively to take in returning to its hive.”

The earliest example for the usage in the OED has a squirrel acting beelike: “The squirrel took a bee line, and reached the ground six feet ahead” (from the Nov. 24, 1830, issue of the Massachusetts Spy).

Researchers have confirmed that bees generally head straight to their hives after collecting nectar and pollen. However, the researchers have debated about whether the bees navigate by using the sun, a mental map, or a combination of both.

Recent research supports the mental map theory. That’s the conclusion of a study entitled “Way-Finding in Displaced Clock-Shifted Bees Proves Bees Use a Cognitive Map” (PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2, 2014).

The authors of the study, James F. Cheeseman et al., describe how anesthetized bees were too disoriented to use the sun for navigation but still managed to return accurately and quickly to their hive.

“This result rules out the sun-referenced home-vector hypothesis, further strengthening the now extensive evidence for a metric cognitive map in bees,” the study concludes.

Some beekeepers believe “beeline” refers to the path that bees take from the hive to the source of nectar and pollen, but all the standard dictionaries we’ve seen accept the OED explanation that the term refers to the path of the returning bees.

However, bees do indeed often take a straight path from their hive to a source of nutrition—helped by nectar-laden returnees. When bees return with nectar and pollen, they do a waggle dance to let the rest of the hive know where to find the good stuff.

In “The Flight Paths of Honeybees Recruited by the Waggle Dance,” a paper in the May 2005 issue of the journal Nature, the authors J. R. Riley et al. say that “the dancer generates a specific, coded message that describes the direction and distance from the hive of a new food source.”

We couldn’t find a good place above to insert the OED’s exhaustive, one-sentence definition of “bee,” so we’ll end with it:

“A well-known insect, or rather genus of insects, of the Hymenopterous order, living in societies composed of one queen, or perfect female, a small number of males or ‘drones,’ and an indefinite number of undeveloped females or ‘neuters’ (which are the workers), all having four wings; they collect nectar and pollen, and produce wax and also honey, which they store up for food in the winter.”

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