Do Bees Sleep?

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There are hard workers but even bees need rest. In fact, 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. But, honey bees do not have the same sleep patterns as humans.

Honey bee asleep in a pink flower.

We know so many interesting bee facts but some of their behavior is still a mystery. Our routine inspections tell us a lot about what they do. The next time you open a hive, be very careful. There may be some sleeping bees inside!

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.

Then in the 1980’s a bee 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 foragers would assume a similar stance.

After a flexing of the honey bee’s segmented legs, sleeping bees would bring their head to the floor and their antennae would become very still. These inanimate workers would rest like this for various amounts of time.

In a beehive, similar activity was observed. Located at the edge of the comb where no brood was present, there was no reason for the workers to sit still.

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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 too.

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

Honey bee sleeps in yellow flower image.

Where Do Bees Sleep?

For honey bees (Apis mellifera), their 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.

It’s rather dark inside the hive all the time! They do not depend on light to get work done inside. Busy sensory antenna, legs and other cues help them navigate the comb.

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

A bee in need of rest can choose a empty hexagon 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 honeybees take short “bee naps”, the older bees need longer periods of rest.

These older bees fly far away in the field and 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. Some continue colony tasks and rest during the day.

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

Individually or in small groups-these sleeping bees are found along the perimeter or edges of the brood nest. Field workers sleep between 5 and 8 hours in a 24 hour period.

The older bees need more rest and sleep longer than younger adults. An article on the architecture of sleep (Eban-Rothschild, A. D. and Bloch, G. (2008) for younger honey bees explored this phenomena.

Bumble bee sleeping in field on purple flower image.

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, they are catching a few zzz’s.

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

They can not survive if their body temperature falls too low. Also, honey bees are very social and have a desire to be together with others in most situations.

Members of the colony with a special task may even have a “sleep over”. For instance, those serving as scout bees go out looking for new hive locations when a colony is preparing to swarm. They may spend the night at the new location before a swarm moves in.

Bumble bees like honey bees are also known to sleep outside. In fact, male Bumbles sleep outside once they mature and leave the hive for good.

Female Bumble bees sometimes get caught out if they delay returning to the nest before the air cools at sunset.

They rest in a relaxed posture on a flower. The next morning – once it warms, they fly back to their nest with pollen.

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

Why Sleep is Important for Bees

With thousands of individuals working together for a common goal, communication is vital. Honey bees have several methods of communication.

They use sight and scent when outside gathering food. Bee pheromones inside and outside the hive help communicate the needs of a colony.

But, another special form of communication takes place inside the hive. Honey bees have a unique way of communicating the location of food sources thru dance.

Sleep Deprivation Affects 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 foragers give the best directions when communicating through dance. This knowledge prevents a lot of unnecessary flying around to search for resources.

Since bees can travel several miles in search of nectar or pollen, this represents a sizable savings of energy. So, the colony is able to maximize food collection.

Cartoon honey bee asleep on purple flower.

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. Characteristics of lack of sleep:

  • dance accuracy was lessened – (especially the waggle dance)
  • 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 little honey bee 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. Antenna droop, the thorax drops and their abdomen relaxes as the wing lay on the back. 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?

Finally

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.

These 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 them and other insects, we are better prepared to appreciate and protect them.

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