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Do Honey Bees Sleep?

Honey bees are well known for their hard work ethic. Surely, they need rest too. Which brings up to the intriguing question – do bees sleep? You may be surprised to learn that yes they do sleep. They need to rest and reenergize themselves much the same as we do. The next time you open a hive, be very careful. There may be some sleeping bees inside!

Honey bee in a sleeping pose in the hive image.

Do Bees Sleep in the Hive?

For many years, researchers did not believe that bees sleep. Though it was known that circadian sleep-wake cycles occurred in birds and mammals. This had not been observed in insects.

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Then in the 1980’s a researcher named, Walter Kaiser made an exciting discovery. He observed that bees do have periods of rest similar to our sleep.

Kaiser was the first researcher to study and verify sleep in an invertebrate. He noticed that resting bees would assume a similar stance.

Sleeping bees would bring their head to the floor and their antennae would become very still. These inanimate bees would rest like this for various amounts of time.

Located at the edge of the comb where no brood was present, there was no reason for the bees to sit still.

Further experiments (Jurgen Tautz – Buzz about Bees) revealed that bees seem to go through various sleep stages as well. Light sleep was common for some and longer periods of deep sleep were observed.

Though most bees passed through a sleep cycle. Unlike mammals, bees experience deep sleep earlier in the sleep cycle rather than late.

Where Do Bees Sleep?

The beehive is a very busy place. It is a bustle of activity 24/7. Unlike many small towns, the honey bee colony does not stop work when dark arrives.

Why? Well, it’s dark inside the hive all the time! The bees do not depend on light to get work done inside the hive.

With all this hustle and bustle, where can a bee sleep? The tired bee has a few choices for a good place to catch a nap.

A bee in need of rest can choose a empty beeswax cell for a bed chamber. Or, she may choose a quiet section of comb away from the bustle of the brood nest.

Sleeping bees tend to be found resting on the outside edges of the comb where less activity is happening.

While young bees take short “bee naps”, the older bees need longer periods of rest.

These flying forager bees are expending more energy that most members of the colony. So they need longer times of rest.

Do Honey Bees Sleep at Night?

Yes, honey bees do sleep at night. But of course not every bee in the hive is asleep during the dark hours.

Because they are busy during the day, most foragers rest and sleep at night. Valuable daylight is spent in the collection of resources.

Individually or in small groups these sleeping bees are found along the edges of the colony.

Forager bees sleep between 5 and 8 hours in a 24 hour period. The older bees need more rest and sleep longer than younger adults.

Do Bees Sleep Away from the Hive?

Yes, bees do sleep away from the hive. Fatigued foragers can be seen sleeping on flowers.

Motionless with head down and antenna still, these resting bees are catching a few zzz’s.

That is until something disturbs them. Then, they will clean their antenna and take flight. However, most foragers sleep inside the hive at night.

Scout bees go out looking for new hive locations when a colony is preparing to swarm. These scout bees may spend the night at the new location before a swarm moves in.

Why Sleep is Important for Bees?

Communication is vital to a productive honey bee colony. And, bees have several methods of communication.

Bees use sight when outside gathering food. Pheromones inside and outside the hive help communicate the needs of a colony.

But, another special form of communication takes place inside a honey bee colony. Honey bees have a unique way of communicating the location of food sources.

When a forager worker bee finds a good food source, they want to tell other foragers. Honey bees dance to tell other bees where to find food.

This knowledge prevents a lot of unnecessary flying around to search for resources. And, the honey bee colony is able to maximize food collection.

Many worker bees inside the hive rest in a form of sleep image.

Lack of Sleep Affects Bee Dance Moves

The special bee dance language involves a series of wiggle, waggles and circular motions that angle across the comb.

Only worker bees who are foragers participate in dancing. They bring back samples of good food sources. Then they dance to direct their sisters to the nectar or pollen.

The dance movements expressed by the dancers provide a lot of information. The direction (from the hive) and approximate distance to the new food source is revealed.

Well-rested bees give the best directions when communicating through dance. Food collection is a very important aspect of colony survival.

Honey bee sleeps in yellow flower image.

Sleep-Deprived Bees Are Sloppy Communicators

In studies where bees were kept busy and not allowed to sleep or rest, their performance noticeably declined in several skill sets.

  • dance accuracy was lessened
  • memory issues were noticeable
  • bees found learning new things more difficult

Worker bees that have had no time of rest or sleep for extended periods did not dance as well. Their communication was sloppy.

Sleepless bees also performed poorly on other sensory response tests. This sounds very similar to humans doesn’t it?

Memory also suffers in a sleep-deprived bee. Fatigued workers had a harder time finding their way back to known food sources.

They spent much more time in orientation flights etc, than their rested sisters. Foraging trips took longer to complete.

Bees with no sleep had difficulty in learning new things. Responses and tasks that would normally be easy took longer to finish.

How to Tell if Bees are Sleeping

Can we prove that bees really sleep? Well, I guess that depends on how you define sleep.

They certainly don’t wear pajamas, climb into bed and close their eyes. Um… bees don’t have eyelids, ya know.

Honey bee face with eyes and no eyelids for sleeping image.

But bees do exhibit some sleep characteristics similar to ours. They engage in periods of immobility.

Their heads are down in a relaxed manner. And, an increased stimulus is necessary to elicit a response.

These are also characteristics of sleep in mammals. Who says they have to close their eyes to sleep?

When observing the inside of a beehive, you may notice several bees sleeping together in the same area.

Sometimes bees appear to hold hands (or hold feet) while they are in the sleeping pose.

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Final Thoughts on Bee Sleep

Honey bees are insects. Of course, their life processes are very different than humans. Still, both life forms share some commonality.

The hard working honey bees needs times of rest and sleep in order to function well in the colony.

As we develop a better understanding of bees and other insects, we are better prepared to appreciate and protect them.

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