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Do Bees Have Knees? Seriously

I know that most of you have heard the catchy phrase, “you are the bees knees”. What exactly does this mean? Is it a complimentary phrase or an insult? And by the way, do bees have knees? And if so, do they perform a special function that aids the insect in daily life?

Unraveling the Mystery of Honey Bee Knees

Honey bee with leg and knees extended foraging image.

Bees are one of our favorite insects and we have thousands of types to enjoy. Some people like honey bees so much that they decide to become beekeepers.

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Having your own beehives is a wonderful hobby. Thousands of stinging insects kept in a box – sounds like fun, right?

Once you decide to get started with beekeeping, people will think you know everything about every kind of bee-especially the honey bee. This is not true of course.

We could study the honey bee for thousands of years without revealing all of their secrets. Yet, we still hear many interesting bee questions.

Thought provoking questions like: Do bees sleep? (They do by the way). And many other questions from people that may not really understand the differences between bees and wasps.

Experienced beekeepers often talk about how much they still don’t know after years of having a beehive. Bee life is a very complex thing.

Still, at some point someone will ask you : What about these knees that bees supposedly have? And if so, why are they special. You may come up with a quirky comeback but just in case they really want to know – let’s learn more about it.

The Bees Knees – A Catchy Phrase for a Time

People love to use catchy phrases. If the phrase rhymes and seems silly, that’s even better. The term bees knees seems to just roll off the tongue without a lot of effort.

When did this term come into use? Do we know who was the first person to use it? Sadly, no. None one knows who was the first to utter the phrase. It began in the 18th century in the Americas and was used as a prank to describe something that didn’t exist.

By the time it came into common use in the 1920’s, the meaning had changed to something positive. This was during a brief time period, when the use of silly slang terms became popular.

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What Does the Phrase “Bees Knees” Mean?

Bees knees referred to something that was extraordinary or excellent beyond compare. To have this popular quote about honey bees expressed about you was a compliment of the highest sort.

Not surprising as in most respects being compared to a bee is a good thing. They work hard and yes honey bees do sting but only when provoked.

Where are The Bee’s Knees?

Yes indeed, bees do have knees. In order to understand, we need to think about the definition of a knee.

In humans, the knee is the major joint in the mid-section of the leg. The knee joins the femur bone to the tibia bone. It makes bending and natural leg movements possible. Without knees our lives and way of movement would be much different.

The Merrian-Webster Dictionary includes this description of a knee: “the joint between the femur and tibia of an insect”.

The bee does indeed have leg parts called the femur and tibia. This confirms that bees do have a body part that is generally referred to as a knee.

Honey Bee Legs are Complex

Legs are very important to honey bees. You might think their wings are their most important part of the bee. But, legs are used in many daily activities. They require a wide range of motion to be useful.

Like other insects, honey bees have 3 pair of legs that are each made up of segments. These segments are joined together by muscles and tendons. Therefore, they can twist and bend in all the ways needed.

Bee legs are suited to assist in : construction of honeycomb cells when bees make beeswax, removing unwanted intruders and pests from the hive, cleaning their antenna before flight and more.

Front legs have special uses including antenna cleaning. This is very important before taking flight. the middle legs of some insects have combs to help clean the body.

On honey bees, the third pair (or hind legs) have special structures called pollen baskets (also called “corbiculae”). These along with a pollen press aids workers in collecting pollen for the hive.

parts of a honey bee leg labeled image.

6 Sections of a Honey Bee Leg

The difference between the legs of a human and bee is easily noticed. The bee has a much more complex leg anatomy than humans.

  1. Coxa
  2. Trochanter
  3. Femur
  4. Tibia
  5. Basitarsus (sometimes called Metatarsus)
  6. Tarsus (tarsi)

The main junctions between the femur and tibia of a bee is considered the bee’s knees. Of course, they do not have a knee cap (patella) but they don’t really need one.

This term is also applied to Bumble Bees. They have a similar leg structure and also carry pollen on their hind legs.

How Many Knees do Bees Have – The Debate!

You might think this is an easy question to answer. If bees have 6 legs, they have 6 knees – right? The largest connector is the “emoro-tibial joint”. This is the section that bends most like a human knee and allows the lower leg and foot area to bend and move.

Some sources consider the main joint of each leg to be knee-like-so there would be 6 knees on a bee. Others feel that this term should only refer to the joint of the hind legs. There you have it – another bee controversy that even the experts can’t agree on. The choice is yours.

Is this Phrase Really Connected to Honey Bees?

Ok, so does this phrase or idiom really have anything to do with bees? We don’t really know. Some believe the colorful balls of pollen hanging on the lower section of worker bee legs were responsible for the term.

Bees look impressive carrying large loads of pollen in their pollen baskets. It is a sign of hard work and wealth for the colony.

Bees collect pollen and use it to raise young. To say that something was “the bees knees” would imply that it was really cool or impressive.

Another possibility is plain human silliness. You will hear similar terms like “the cat’s pyjamas” or “cat’s whiskers”. Maybe people just like it because it rhymes and is fun to say! Sometimes people are a bit harder to understand than bees.