How Bees See Flowers

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Researchers have long been impressed with the amazing eyesight of bees – how bees see flowers is different than humans. We can see more colors than honey bees but they see a wider range of color that includes ultraviolet (UV) light. They also use an array of visual cues to aid in locating food.

Two honey bees attracted to visual nectar guides on pink flower.

In one of many studies into honey bee anatomy and function, bee scientist Karl von Frisch determined that bees can see color. They were able to differentiate between red and blue in his experiment. But, their visual abilities go far beyond that.

Honey Bee Vision for Flower Foraging

Many plants depend on insect pollination in order to make fruit and produce seed. Bees help flowers by providing pollination as they move from flower to flower.

These plants evolved to use scents, as well as, different colors and markings to lure in pollinators. Some flowers have obvious markings, called nectar guides, to direct pollinators to the spot with nectar and pollen.   

We can see some of these markings even with our human eyes but bees can see much more.

As foraging bees fly across the landscape, they receive remarkable visual cues that aid in recognizing colors, patterns and shapes.

Honey bees have a trichromatic color system that helps them see a wide range of color hues.

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

Many flowers possess distinct ultraviolet patterns. They are invisible to us but act as beacons directing bees towards a flower’s center.

Three colorful flowers with nectar guides at the center that bees see easily.

Color in the Eyes of Bees

The 5 eyes of honey bees, work together to give them their special visual abilities. Two large compound eyes are located on the sides of the head. They are made up of thousands of small facets (ommatidium) or lenses. 

One top of the head is a cluster of 3 small eyes called “ocelli”. Ocelli are not used to gather images, they are light receptors. They help the bees measure light intensity and also aid in navigation.   

It is these small eyes that help bees see flowers in a different way. Ocelli allow the bees to see the ultraviolet patterns in the petals of some flowers. This is nothing short of a super power.

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How Bees See Color

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 interpret 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 colony.

Nectar guides help bees see flowers with food image.

What Colors do Bees Like Best?

However, 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 honey bees can see on the flowers.

Recognition of Flowers and Navigation

The honey bee may be very small but they are able to process sight information much faster than humans. 

Even when traveling fast, bees can single out a desirable flower with amazing accuracy. This ability to distinguish between different flowers makes their foraging more efficient.

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 with other colony members.

In addition to helping bees see flowers, polarized UV light helps them navigate. It 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 – especially if they fly on misty rainy days.

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 flowers to use as a food source. It is also difficult for them to avoid obstacles in the dark.  

Inside the colony, hive tasks continue and the queen bee will lay eggs day and night.  However, darkness is a time of rest – some bees sleep and rest for small periods of time.

However, one of the species of large Asian honey bees (Apis dorsata) – is well known for it’s night foraging. Just a bit of moonlight allows this industrious insect to continue working – they do live in a tropical environment.

Group of Asian honey bees Apis dorsata known for night flight at night..

FAQs

Why can honey bees see flower color that are invisible to humans?

Honey bees have special photoreceptors that are sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light. This allows them to see colors beyond the visible spectrum available to humans.

What colors are bees most attracted to?

Bees are particularly attracted to colors in the blue and violet range. They appear especially bright and enticing to bees.

Can bees see different flower shapes?

Yes, bees are able to recognize flower shapes – simple flower shapes are especially attractive.

Final Thoughts

As with most aspects of bee life, honey bees are designed in a way that helps them function in their environment. Bees must see flowers of various colors, sizes and shapes to provide a healthy diet. Their amazing sense of sight helps them collect resources the bee colony needs.

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