Honey Bee Legs: Why Bees Have So Many?

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Compose a list of what you believe are the most important parts of a honey bee. Most likely, bee legs are not at the top of your list. We often see bees flying from flower to flower as they look for food. They definitely use their wings. But, how important can legs be to a honey bee? You may be surprised to learn the facts.

What Honey Bees Can do With Their Legs

Worker honey bee using legs to clings to white flower.

Among the many different species of bees, the size and shape of legs varies greatly.   Like all insects, honey bees have six legs.  Three pairs of legs that connect to each side of the midsection or thorax of the body.

Interestingly, the thorax is also the part of a bee where the wings connect.  In the world of bee anatomy, this makes the thorax the locomotion center.  All movement is made possible from this region.

When busy inside the hive, bees can’t fly of course.  Their wings are folded in a position near the body. Otherwise, it would be like every member of your family walking around inside with an open umbrella. 

This would take up too much room in a colony of thousands of individuals. Honey bees don’t like to waste space – perhaps that is one reason why they use hexagon shaped cells for their comb!

Legs allow the bee to move from one spot inside the hive to another. They also aid in bee pollination efforts as they move flower parts to allow the proboscis to reach the food reward inside. But, some specialized structures make these appendages useful in other ways.

Structure of Honey Bee Legs

All members of a honey bee colony have 6 segmented legs.  These joints (including bee’s knees) allow a wide range of movement. However, the joints between the leg sections of a bee are nothing like that of humans or large animals.

Leg movement is limited in bees sticking mostly to and up and down or out and back motion.  But, due to the number of segments-mobility is increased. 

For the average hobby beekeeper, remembering the names of the leg segments is likely not that important. However, for those of you interested in knowing more about bee anatomy – it is quite a fascinating topic.

Close up of worker bee with segmented legs extended.

6 Principal Segments of a Bee Leg

  • Coxa
  • Trochanter
  • Femur
  • Tibia
  • Tarsus
  • Pretarsus

The pretarus is the foot of the bee and it has claws on the end.  These are very important to daily bee life.  Claws help the bee hold onto rough surfaces. The foot also has structures called arolium that work as suction pads on smooth surfaces.

All castes (types of bees in the hive) have antenna cleaners.  These notches located on the front leg are important for good bee flight. They are used to clean, pollen, dust and debris from the important antenna of the bee..

Bees have simple eyes and large compound eyes that help them navigate when flying. Pollen and dust must be cleaned from the hairy bee eyes before flight. You might see a forager bee cleaning herself with her front legs at the hive entrance just before taking off.

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Pollen Basket or Corbicula

Though they share some characteristics-that does not mean that everyone’s legs are exactly the same. Worker bees have some special structures that are not found on the legs of the queen bee or drones (male bees).

Worker bees are females that do all of the tasks required by the colony. They have several special leg parts to help them in their duties.

Worker honey bee and bumble bee with pollen baskets on hind legs.

The corbicula (often called “pollen basket”) is located on the back or hind legs.  Together with the rake or pollen brush and pollen press, legs helps bees gather pollen grains and transport them to the hive. 

Once back at the hive, the bee uses her legs to help remove pollen pellets from the basket. The pellets are made up of fresh pollen grains and bee saliva.

The saliva contains enzymes that help convert pollen into bee bread. Plant pollen is an important protein source for bees. It is stored in wax cells and used to rear young bees. It is as important to continued survival of the colony as nectar.

Another substance collected by bees is propolis. This is sometimes called “bee glue“. It is collected in the same way as pollen. Bees use their mouth parts and legs to pack it on the corbicula.

Propolis is a resinous plant secretion that bees use to sanitize their home. Some beekeepers collect propolis and sell it for homeopathic medicines.

Honey bees inside hive building wax cells.

Making Wax Comb

Sheets of wax honeycomb make up the interior of a honey bee hive. Wax is produced by adult workers from special wax glands located on the abdomen.

Bees use their legs to transfer small pieces of wax to their mandibles (jaws). The wax is chewed and molded into the individual wax cells that make up storage space inside the hive.

Workers often hang in chains near wax building sites. This activity is called “festooning bees“. Researchers disagree on the answer to this bee question – Why they do it? But, it may have something to do with construction of comb.

Taste Receptors

Bees can taste with their feet? Yes, they can to a degree. Honey bees have taste receptors located within sensilla (hair like structures) of their front feet.

This is only one way they experience taste but it gives them the ability to quickly discern if a flower have tasty nectar. No use is wasting time on bad tasting nectar, right?

Communication

When bees walk across a surface, they leave hydrocarbon footprints. Some researchers feel these footprints give olfactory clues. This is similar to the bee pheromones that members of the colony use to communicate.

We do know that those little feet cause white beeswax comb to grow dark over time.  With thousands of little feet tracking all over – it is not surprising to see honeycomb become darker over time. Beekeepers periodically replace old dark comb to keep the inside of the hive healthier.

If you are a beekeeper, you have probably seen a worker bee place her legs on the body of the other bee. She makes a pumping motion – it looks like she is doing push ups. We may not always know why they do these things – but the bees are communicating in some way.

The specialized design of honey bee legs helps them carry on their daily activity. But, it is clear that their legs are about much more than just movement. They also function in ways similar to our hands. 

Legs help the bees walk, run, groom themselves, communicate, fly and form the comb of their hive. Yes, they have a lot of them but they make use of everything nature has given them. Now, how many things can you do with your legs? 😉

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