The eyes of bees are very different than those of humans or other mammals. In fact, they have remarkable vision that helps them with navigation, foraging and communication. Capable of flying through the air at speeds of 20 mph, honey bees rely on good eyesight to perform their everyday tasks. This is no small task for a tiny insect. How many eyes does a bee have and how do they work?
The more you learn about honey bees and their anatomical structure – the more amazing they become. Each part of a bee is designed to help them do a particular task that is necessary for survival.
Types of Honey Bee Eyes
A honey bee has 5 eyes, they do not all perform in the same way. There are two distinct sets that help interpret the insect’s world.
Vision is very important to a honey bee. For the workers (female bees), their job is to gather the many resources needed by the colony.
This might involve traveling miles from the hive – by air. Their specialized eyes help ensure success in finding the target and making it back to the right hive.
Because of all the data needed to accomplish her task, bees have 2 different types of eyes.
- simple eyes
Large Compound Eyes
An close inspection of a bee will reveal 2 large compound eyes found on the side of the head. Compound eyes – as their name implies – consist of thousands of tiny “micro-eyes” called ommatidium – facets.
These tiny lenses are groups of photoreceptors that interpretate the world from different angles. The number of ommatidia in these compound eyes ranges from 5,000 to 8,000.
If you could see through the eyes of a honey bee, the image would look much like a puzzle or mosaic with many pieces.
Nerves connect the ommatidium to the brain where the information is interpreted into an image that the bee understands.
Positioned on the top of their head in a triangular pattern are 3 simple eyes called Ocelli – (from the Latin word “ocellus – little eye”).
You may not notice these simple structures unless you look very closely. Their triangular pattern (2 dorsal and 1 central) and resembles 3 little dots. Each of the small eyes has only 1 lens.
Aid in Navigation
Simple eyes do not form pictures in the way we think of normal sight. They are primarily light sensors and help the honey bee navigate using the position of the sun-even on a cloudy day.
This enables the bee to easily view the horizon and horizon line as the day begins and ends. This is important for a worker bee that plans to work from daylight to dusk.
Perception of Daylight and Dark
Foraging honey bees collect the resources mostly during the daylight hours. But, some bees are “crepuscular” and prefer to forage at night.
They have larger ocelli to help them detect small variations in light especially at dawn and dusk.
Sensitive to UV Light
Ocelli are very sensitive to ultraviolet light – that is invisible to humans. This sensitivity helps honey bees recognize patterns and reflections that aid in navigation.
Honey Bee Vision
The way in which the five eyes of a honey bee work together allows them to complete complex tasks – and feats of navigation.
They can easily see movement in any direction due to the facets on the curved surface of the compound eyes. This helps them understand their surroundings and respond to any threats.
Bees see flowers much differently than we do. Using their ocelli to see ultraviolet light, they can recognize patterns, shapes and colors.
Over time, most flowering plants that need pollination have evolved to be attractive to pollinating insects. Many have nectar guides that are only visible with UV light (ultra-violet light).
The ability to see polarized light helps them fly quickly across the landscape and locate food.
Vision of a Drone Bee
There is a noticeable difference among the eyesight of the various bees in a hive. Worker bees have about 6900 facets (or lenses) in their compound eyes.
Drones are the male bees of the colony. Because they do no work, one might think their eyesight would not be as good as workers.
This is not true! Drones have 8600 facets in their eyes – a measurable amount more than the worker.
Why is eyesight so important to drone honey bees? They need excellent sight to spot virgin queens flying in the air.
On warm afternoon, virgin queens in an area fly to these spaces hoping to mate. Good vision aids the drones in finding the queens.
Do Bee Eyes Have Hair?
Another amazing fact about the eyes of honey bees is the small hair that grows on their eyeballs. The tiny hairs grow out from between the ommatidium.
Even though there is still some mystery surrounding the purpose of this hair, it is believed to be there to help keep the eye lenses clean.
Hairy eyes also helps bees measure the wind speed and direction. This aids them in returning to the hive even in windy conditions that might blow a tiny bee off course.
You will often see bees cleaning their eyes and segmented antenna before taking flight. This removes any pollen particles that may have stuck to their fuzzy body.
The simple and compound eyes of the honey bee help it navigate the world. Millions of flowers must be visited to collect all the resources needed by the colony. A remarkable feat for a tiny insect wouldn’t you agree?
The two very different types of eyes each serve unique purposes. Vision and light detection works together to enable the type of eyesight bees require.
Honey bee eyes are black but other species of bees show great variety in eye color. You will find blue, orange and even green insect eyes.
Because bees see colors in a different way than humans, some people think that bees are colorblind. This is not true.
They can perceive color but cannot see as far into the red spectrum as humans. To a honey bee, the color red looks black.
No, most insects do not have that many eyes. But, it is common for an insect to have a combination of simple and compound eyes.
Honey bee eyes are located on their head. Two compound eyes on the sides of the head and three simple eyes on top.
One of the most remarkable aspects of honey bees is not how many eyes they have but the wonderous way they work together. Some help them navigate through their world and find food. Others tell them when dark is coming and it is time to go home. What an amazing insect that is designed just perfectly for survival.