One of the most exciting things about bees, an aspect of their anatomy that scientists have spent countless hours studying over the years, is their phenomenal sight. For being such small creatures, the way bees view the world is almost un-bee-lievable. What they can see and understand is incredible!
A bee’s sight allows them to do all of the things an upstanding bee must do to stay busy and be a productive member of their colony… and then some. Whether it’s seeing colors that are entirely foreign to humans, spotting the best food sources, or figuring out directions, bee vision is fascinating! Let’s dive in and learn more about how and what they see.
Bees have a total of five eyes that, together, create their view of the world.
The triangle of three tiny eyes on top of their heads are ocelli, and they act much like a bee-GPS. Ocelli get bees where they’re going by allowing them to judge light intensities during flight and find the UV colors that flowers display (more on that later). Fun fact: “Ocelli” comes from “ocellus,” the Latin term that means “little eyes.” Aren’t those little eyes cute?
Bees also have two big compound eyes, one either side of their heads, that contain thousands of lenses called facets. Each facet is part of a structure called an ommatidium. The photoreceptor cells in ommatidia respond to light waves. Together, all of the ommatidia send signals to the brain, relaying what their facets see. This creates what scientists imagine to be one big picture, or mosaic, with which they view their surroundings and understand things like shapes, patterns, and colors.
The photoreceptors in bee eyes can see color combinations of up to three colors, making their eyes trichromatic, just like humans. However, bees see light wavelengths of up to 300-650nm as opposed to the 390-750nm we see. So while we see color combinations of red, blue, and green, bees can see blue, green, and Ultra Violet (UV), a color that can’t be detected by the human eye. There’s even a color combination exclusive to bee vision, “Bee’s Purple,” a bee-utiful combination of UV and yellow.
The human-seen colors most likely to catch a bee’s eye are purple, violet, and blue, but when it comes to flower colors that attract bees, UV is where it’s at. Some flowers have unique UV color patterns, or nectar guides, that help bees get an optimal amount of pollen from them. Like UV landing zones, nectar guides show bees just where in the flower they should go to get the most pollen stuck to them.
Speaking of UV color patterns, sometimes flowers can appear to change color depending on the angle from which a bee is looking at them. This is known as iridescence, and more often than not, the color is in the UV spectrum and only visible to bees. Studies have shown that bees find iridescent flowers faster than they find non-iridescent flowers. When bees spot those shiny petals, they think “sugar!” and make a bee-line to start pollinating it.
Polarized light is another type of light wave that humans don’t see, but that is very important to bees. When sunlight moves through atmospheric air molecules, it creates polarization patterns that bees can identify. Bees will use these patterns to determine directions, with or without sunlight, and share them with their buddies in the colony. When they’re away from their hive, bees can figure out their way back by taking note of the polarized light patterns – as if they’re navigating the sky!
In addition to seeing colors undetectable by us humans, they can also see colors 5x more quickly, which comes in handy when flying. And while bees can see individual flowers when they’re zipping through the air, they do a better job tracking moving objects than they do those that don’t move (this is especially handy for those mid-air mating flights!)
Some studies have even found that bees can identify and remember 3D shapes, colors, and textures, which helps them remember where things are located – like great forage! They even adjust their flight patterns so they can figure out just how big or small something is.
Because they can track objects as they zoom past and around them, bees can use those object references to judge distances. They can then tell their colony how far away things are by doing their waggle dance – communicating the distance to a fantastic foraging buffet, or a plethora of wildflowers. Their ability to see things while zipping through the air is also beneficial when trying to get away from predators or swatting human hands. Trust us, they see you coming long before you think!
The next time you see a bee fly by, stop and think about all of the amazing things they’re able to see. From UV colors to navigation paths in the sky, it might be fun to imagine how that little bee is seeing the world around them.