Bees rely on their incredible sense of sight to navigate their world and perform their duties to the colony. Honey bees primarily need powerful vision to find flowers, which are their main food source. But what do bees see, and how do their sights compare to that of humans?
It’s hard to imagine seeing the world through different eyes. As worker bees buzz about their lives, they see different colors, light intensity, and details compared to the human gaze. This unique vision helps them find nectar-rich flowers and navigate the world around their hive.
If you’ve ever wondered how bees see the world, check out this guide for the answer.
How Does a Bee See?
Bees see with their five eyes. They have three smaller ocelli on top of their heads and two large, more prominent ones on either side. Each of these larger eyes is called a compound eye.
The Ocelli Help Bees Find Light
The ocelli sit at the center of the top of the bee’s head. These ocelli have single lenses that measure light intensity. Its primary function is to help the bee find a light source and orient itself as it navigates the world.
The Compound Eyes Help Bees See Color
Their compound eyes, which sit on either side of the bee’s head, are made of thousands of tiny lenses. Each of these lenses, known as facets, captures a small part of the bee’s vision, which the brain then stitches together to compose a full picture of what it sees.
What Are Facets?
Facets are the main component of the bee’s eyes that lets them see color. It also allows them to see things at an extremely wide angle. These facets are responsible for the bee’s sharp vision.
A typical worker bee can have 6,900 facets, while a drone bee can have up to 8,600 facets, which it will need to locate the queen bee during its mating flight.
Bees are not the only insects in the animal kingdom with five eyes. This characteristic is commonly shared by hornets, wasps, dragonflies, and grasshoppers.
Bees Have Unique Color Vision
While both human’s and bee’s eyes have the same function, they operate slightly differently.
Bee Vision Range vs. Human Vision Range
Like humans, bees are trichromatic. Bee eyes contain three photoreceptors. The bee vision is based on the three colors these photoreceptors can read.
But unlike humans—whose color vision is based on red, blue, and green—the vision of a honeybee is based on blue, green, and ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light has shorter wavelengths and is generally invisible to the human eye.
A bee’s eye can see approximately 300 to 650 nanometers of the light spectrum, while humans can see 390 to 750 nanometers. So while bees can’t see the color red, they can see ultraviolet light at its range of 100 to 400 nanometers.
Bees Can See Polarized Light
Polarized light is a kind of light whose vibrations occur in a single plane. The amazing bees’ eyes can detect polarized light patterns in the atmosphere. They can use this to obtain location information which they relay back to the colony.
Being able to see and locate polarized light allows a honeybee to find its way around even when there’s no sunlight.
Do Bees See All Colors?
Bees are not able to see all colors. A bee’s eyes are simply not equipped to see the color red, although they can see reddish wavelengths like yellow and orange. However, they can see ultraviolet light, which is out of the range of human sight.
How Honey Bees Use Their Vision
To a honey bee, ultraviolet light reveals patterns on certain flower petals. Humans can’t see these patterns, but a honeybee’s eyes can see and use these nectar guides as a sort of landing strip to find nectar-rich flowers.
This also means that bees are better at finding specific types of flowers, even in a field of similar shapes and colors. They can see far more unique details on flowers than humans can.
Are Bees Near-Sighted?
A honey bee is nearsighted. While a honey bee has much faster image processing speeds than humans, it cannot see very far.
Although efficient and powerful, the amazing compound eye of a bee is rigid, and its focal focus is fixed, which means it cannot adjust its focus depending on the distance of the object it’s directed at. Beyond a certain reach, a bee will start to see the object as a pixelated blur. The farther an object is, the harder it is for a bee to see.
Being nearsighted organisms might seem like a disadvantage, but they compensate for this by having an extraordinary ability to see things while in motion.
Bees See Objects Fast
Bees see and process colors at ultra-fast speed. In fact, they see the world five times faster than humans. They detect movements using the 4,000 to 7,000 facets located in their compound eyes. As a result, they can see movements that happen at 1/300th of a second—way more advanced than what humans see at only 1/50th of a second.
This super-speed ability allows them to escape predators, catch their mates mid-air, and navigate the environment around them to find food. This also helps them calculate the distance and remember the location of certain foraging spots.
Bees See the World at a Wide Angle
Honey bees also have the advantage of seeing a much wider field of vision. Bees can see things almost panoramically at 280°. Comparably, humans can only see up to 180°.
This wide field of vision is particularly useful to the diversity of bee species, as most of them are diurnal, meaning they are active only during the day.
Some tropical species that exhibit nocturnal activities also benefit from this, gathering nectar and pollen from flowers that remain open at night. The panoramic vision helps these bees to effectively navigate and perform their tasks regardless of the time of day.
How Do Bees See at Night?
Bees that can navigate at night have the same seeing apparatus as their diurnal cousins, although slightly evolved. They also have five eyes, but the ocelli of these bees are larger in proportion to their bodies. These bee species are called crepuscular, meaning they can see with the little light available at night.
Navigating through light is not the only way bees can see the world around them. They can also navigate through the following:
Bees Can Detect Electromagnetic Fields
In addition to some unique mechanisms in honey bees’ eyes, they also detect electromagnetic fields, which they use to locate adequate food sources.
As a bee flies, it becomes positively charged. This allows pollen to stick to them easily. When they cannot detect this charge, the bees indicate that the flower’s nectar and pollen have already been harvested.
Bees Communicate via Pheromones
When a worker bee discovers a rich food source, it releases a specific pheromone trail. This scented path guides other bees from the colony to the newly found nourishment. Bees also release alarm pheromones during threats, alerting and gathering the hive to defend their home.
Queen bees utilize pheromones to maintain harmony and control within the hive. Her unique pheromone blend ensures the workers’ infertility, suppresses the rearing of other queens and makes her presence known throughout the colony.
Bees Communicate by Dance
Bees may dance to show another bee the location of a food source. If a food source is detected nearby, they perform a routine called a “round dance.” This dance involves the scout bee performing loops in alternative directions.
However, it performs a “waggle” dance if the food source is farther away. This special dance occurs on a dance floor near a honeycomb entrance. Only honey bees with news of a particularly rich nectar source can perform the dance. This waggle dance consists of doing a figure-eight pattern, a walk between loops, and an irregular wing flutter.
Why Do Honey Bees Have Hairy Eyes?
Not all bee species have hairy eyes, but honey bees certainly do! A honeybee’s entire body is covered with hair, including its eyes. But why is that so?
The main reason for honey bees’ fuzzy bodies is that they get covered in pollen when they visit flowers. And yes, the pollen does get stuck in their eyes. Having hair even on their eyes prevents the pollen from directly sticking to the surface of a honeybee’s eyes.
Honey bees regularly have to clean their eyes by transferring the pollen from their eye hairs to their hind legs.