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How do Bees See Flowers?

Researchers have long been impressed with the amazing eyesight of bees.   In the early 1900’s bee scientist Karl von Frisch determined that bees can see color. They were able to differentiate between red and blue.  We humans can see more colors than honey bees.  However, the bees can see a wider range of color that includes ultraviolet light (UV).  This helps bees see flowers and find nectar across a wide area.

Close up of 5 honey bees eyes used to see flowers and food image.

How Bees See the World

Many plants depend on insect pollination in order to make fruit and produce seed.  Their existence depends on visiting pollinators. These flowers evolved to use scents, as well as, different colors and markings to lure in pollinators. 

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Some flowers have obvious markings, also called nectar guides, to help the pollinators target the spot with nectar.   We can see these even with our human eyes.

But, bees see flowers much differently than we do. They can find those flowers with nectar guides that are invisible to humans.

Honey bee foraging on yellow cone flower how bees see flowers image.

Honey Bee Eyes

Honey bees have 5 eyes.  These parts of a honey bee have special functions.  At the top of the head is a cluster of 3 small eyes called “ocelli”.  Ocelli and not used to gather images, they are light receptors. 

They help the bees measure light and also aid in navigation.   It is these small eyes are help bees see the UV colors in some flowers.

In addition to Ocelli, honey bees have 2 large eyes. They are made up of thousands of small facets or lenses.  Worker bees have 6,900 facets in each eye and they are all connected to provide a mosaic picture.

Drone bees have even larger eyes with 8,600 facets.  Why you may ask does the drone bees have larger eyes – they do no work?  Because the role of the drone bees is to find a virgin queen and mate. 

Honey bees mate while in flight.  Those boys need good eyesight to find flying queens.  Good eyesight is even more important to drones than workers.

How Bees See Color

Human sight is based on 3 colors – red, blue and green.  Honey bees also see three base colors – blue, green and UV. 

When honey bees are in flight, their color vision is turned off. The world appears in black and white. But when they approach their target location, the colors come into focus. Jurgen Tautz has some wonderful info about this in his book – The Buzz about Bees.

Bees can not see red.  They do not have photo receptors to interested the color red.   Of course, this does not mean that red things are invisible to bees – instead they look black. 

This is why most beekeeper suits are light colors.  We do not want to look like a dark predator to the bees.

Honey bee attracted to nectar in bold colored flower image.

What Colors do Bees Like Best?

Honey bees can distinguish some colors in the red family such are orange and yellow.  There is also a special combination of violet, blue and blue-green that is called “bee’s purple”. 

Unfortunately, you will never see bee’s purple because it is a combination of yellow and UV light.   According to research, bees favorite colors are purple, violet and blue. 

But that doesn’t mean they don’t visit flowers of many other colors.  They forage for food wherever they can find it and color is only one cue.

Flowers showing UV light guides that are visible to honey bees and other insects image.

Navigation Aided by Sight

The honey bee may be very small but they are to process sight information much faster than humans.  Bees can find single blossoms in a group of flowers much faster than we could.  Even when traveling fast, bees can single out a desirable flower with amazing accuracy.

When a good food source is found, scout bees return to the hive to recruit their sisters to the site.  Using various bee dances to communicate, the location of food resources is shared.

The ability of these remarkable bee eyes to see analyze polarized UV light must not be overlooked. This enables them to navigate by the sun – even when the sun is not shining. Without the ability to use polarized light, the bees would never make it back to the hive.

Bright pink flower with darker nectar guide region to guide bees image.

Can Bees See in the Dark?

With a few exceptions, you will not find honey bees out at night. They rely on vision and scent to find food sources, And, it is difficult for them to avoid obstacles in the dark.  

Life inside the hive continues and the queen bee will lay eggs day and night.  However, darkness is a time of rest for foraging bees.

Final Thoughts on Honey Bee Sight

As with most aspects of bee life, honey bees are designed with eyes that meet their needs. Large compound eyes that provide visuals and small ocelli to aid in navigation are both important.

Sharing come characteristics with humans, the eyes of honey bees are specialized. They must be able to find millions of flowers efficiently. Along with odor cues, they use their sense of sight to forage for things the colony needs. These busy bees have a lot to do during the warm months of Summer. Winter is coming – always.

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