How Bees See And Why It Matters (2023)

by Sharla Riddle

Here’s an “eye-popping” fact: The USDA estimates that 80% of insect crop pollination is accomplished by bees.

Scientists consider bees to be a keystone species. They are so important to an ecosystem that it will collapse without them. At least 90 commercially grown crops depend upon bee pollination for survival. How important is the pollination by bees? Ask an almond grower. Without bees, there would be no almonds. Apples, blueberries, cherries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, grapefruit, oranges and pumpkins would also disappear. Bees are the undisputed champions of the pollination world. And their secret weapon? Sight.

The remarkable eyesight of bees has long been a source of fascination in the scientific community. A hundred years ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Karl von Frisch proved that bees can see color. The color we see is based upon how a pigment absorbs and reflects light. When light hits an object, some is absorbed and some is reflected. Our eyes perceive the reflected portion as color. The brilliant color in flowers is a way of attracting pollinators, such as bees. The colors of flowers help target the areas of nectar. That’s the reason why petals are usually a different color than leaves. Even though humans can see more colors, bees have a much broader range of color vision. Their ability to see ultraviolet light gives them an advantage when seeking nectar. Many patterns on flowers are invisible to humans. These nectar “bulls-eyes” are visible only to animals, such as bees, that have the ability to see ultra-violet light. This “bee vision” makes finding nectar much easier. In fact, some flowers such as sunflowers, primroses and pansies have nectar guides that can only be seen in ultra-violet light.

Like us, bees are trichromatic. That means they have three photoreceptors within the eye and base their color combinations on those three colors. Humans base their color combinations on red, blue and green, while bees base their colors on ultraviolet light, blue and green. This is the reason why bees can’t see the color red. They don’t have a photoreceptor for it. They can, however, see reddish wavelengths, such as yellow and orange. They can also see blue-green, blue, violet, and “bee’s purple.” Bee’s purple is a combination of yellow and ultraviolet light. That’s why humans can’t see it. The most likely colors to attract bees, according to scientists, are purple, violet and blue.

Bees also have the ability to see color much faster than humans. Their color vision is the fastest in the animal world-five times faster than humans. So while we may have trouble distinguishing one flower in a group from another, bees don’t. They see each individual flower. Some flower petals appear to change color, depending upon the angle. This is known as iridescence. It’s often in the UV spectrum, so we can’t see it. But, bees can. They see these shiny petals and associate them with sugar. Thus, the flower becomes more attractive to the bee and gets pollinated.

(Video) Bees: Why They Matter and How You Can Help

When we drive on a highway and look out the window at the flowers by the roadside, we usually can’t distinguish one flower from another. The car is moving so fast that the flowers blend in to one another and we see a blur of color. Bees have a far higher “flicker” threshold. They can see individual flowers while traveling at a high rate of speed. Because of this, they actually respond better to moving objects than stationary ones. That’s why honey bees have no trouble pollinating moving flowers. That’s also why it’s rather useless to try swatting a bee-it has no trouble avoiding moving objects.

Flying helps bees see better. They can see depth and they can see three dimensionally. They can also judge distance. They communicate these distances and directions of good foraging sites to the hive through their waggle dance. However, scientists have found that it is possible to trick bees into misjudging distances. In one study, a tunnel was painted in a semi-checkered pattern. When the bees passed through it, they became confused regarding the distance of the tunnel. The checkered pattern caused them to think the tunnel was longer, because they thought they were passing by a lot of objects. When the scientists painted horizontal stripes in the tunnel, the bees flew too short. Because of the lines, they couldn’t judge that they were passing by any objects. Thus, scientists realized that bees use the objects they fly by to judge distances, which they later communicate to the hive.

Bees have two different types of eyes-each with separate functions. The three smaller eyes in the center-top of a bee’s head are called ocelli. Ocelli comes from the Latin word “ocellus” which means little eye. These little bee eyes have single lenses and help the bee maintain stability and navigate. They enable the bee to judge light intensity and stay oriented. Using these ocelli, bees can gather light and see ultra-violet light, helping them to detect UV flower colors.

If a bee were a superhero, its sight would be its super power. Every bee has two large compound eyes. These eyes are amazing examples of nature’s engineering. A compound eye is made up of thousands of tiny lenses called facets. Each of these facets takes in one small part of the insect’s vision. The bee’s brain then converts these signals into a mosaic-like picture made of each image. Worker bees have 6,900 facets in each eye, and drones have 8,600 facets. Every facet is connected to a tiny tube. Each of these units, called an ommatidium, contains a lens (facet), a cone of visual cells and pigment cells that help separate it from its neighbor cells.

A bee is able to see color, because each of these tiny tubes contains eight cells that respond to light. Four of these cells respond to yellow-green light, two respond to blue light, and one responds to ultraviolet light. But a bee’s super sight powers go much farther than seeing mere colors. A bee can also detect polarized light. Polarized light moves in one direction. It’s caused when air molecules from the atmosphere scatter the photons to create a “super highway” of light. A bee’s amazing eye can scan and match the polarization patterns in the sky. It’s a bee version of GPS. They are able to use this polarized light as a navigating system. What makes this such a super power is that bees can use polarized light to locate direction even when the sun isn’t shining. They then communicate these directions to the colony. Basically, it’s a bee road-map. Bees can find their way back home by checking the pattern of polarized light in the sky.

(Video) Virtual Tour of What's the Buzz? Why Honey Bees Matter

Every super hero has at least one side-kick and a bee’s pal is light. Light is defined as the electromagnetic energy we can see. Humans generally see in the 700 to 400 nanometer range of the spectrum, while bees can see from the 600 to 300 nm range. The 400 to 300 nm section of the spectrum includes ultraviolet light Studies have shown that if deprived of ultraviolet light, bees lose interest in foraging and will remain in the hive until they are forced out by starvation and severe food shortages. UV light, which can penetrate cloud cover, is critical in a bee’s ability to find nectar. Bees don’t see the same flower color that we do. The UV patterns on the petals of a flower can be compared to the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. Those patterns guide the bee to land at the nectar source. It also explains how bees are able to select a particular species of flower from a field of white flowers. Bees aren’t just seeing white flowers. They’re seeing flowers with distinct UV markers. In fact, bees will head to the UV-absorbing area of a flower first. It is their bullseye. And, just because a flower is ugly to us, doesn’t mean that it’s ugly to a bee. Recent studies have shown that weeds are more successful than other plants because they’re more attractive to the pollinators. Beauty is in the eye of the “bee-holder.”

In very rare instances, people can see into the ultra-violet range. Usually, it’s after a lens injury or cataract surgery. This condition is called aphakia. People with aphakia see a “near” UV light. It is perceived as a whitish-blue or whitish-violet color. The French impressionist painter Claude Monet had this condition after cataract surgery. Before the surgery, his cataracts were so bad that his color range was limited to red and orange. After the surgery his paintings included deep purple and blue hues.

Because of the bee’s extraordinary ability to see and navigate its world, researchers have made many attempts to create models that mimic a bee’s sight. The first “bee eye” cameras weren’t successful. They contained more than one camera, which caused them to be too heavy to use. Then, in 2010, German scientists were finally able to create a camera with a “bee’s eye view.” The key to this camera’s success was in using a combination of lenses and mirrors to create a bee’s 280 degree field of vision. The camera is tiny, with a diameter of only 23 millimeters. This “bee camera” will allow drone aircraft to “see” more of the world around them. It’s a small step in trying to mimic the bee’s very complex vision system.

The contribution by bees to world economies is staggering. Researchers at the University of Reading calculated that bees contribute more to the UK economy each year than does the Royal family from tourism. In the U.S., these super-pollinators are worth 14.6 billion dollars in crop production. With its incredible vision, a bee can pollinate plants with pinpoint accuracy. Windy weather and overcast skies are no match for its incredible sight. It can see what we can’t and because of that ability, it’s the ultimate pollinator. A bee’s sight is its super power. Why does it matter? Because bees matter.


(Video) Why are bees important?

Barras, Colin. “Artificial Bee Eye Could Improve Robotic Vision.” New Scientist 207. 2773 (2010): 1.

Dyer, Adrian G., and Jair E. Garcia. “Color Difference and Memory Recall in Free-Flying Honeybees: Forget the Hard Problem.” Insects (2075-4450) 5.3 (2014): 629-638.

Kleist, T. “Bee Navigation: The Eyes Have It.” Science News 130.14 (1986): 214.

Papiorek, S., et al. “Bees, Birds and Yellow Flowers: Pollinator-Dependent Convergent Evolution of UV Patterns.” Plant Biology 18.1 (2016): 46-55.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “Dance of the Deceived Bees.” Science Now (2001): 2.

(Video) Why Bees Matter to the Environment

Srinivasan, Mandyam V. “Distance Perception in Insects.” Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell) 1.1 (1992): 22-26.

Werner, Annette, Wolfgang Sturzi, and Johannes Zanker. “Object Recognition in Flight: How Do Bees Distinguish Between 3D Shapes?” Plos ONE 11.2 (2016): 1-13.

Williams, Caroline. “Sense and Sense Ability. (Cover Story). New Scientist 211.2826 (2011): 32-37.

Sharla Riddle is a retired educator and freelance author. She has been named a Huddleston Scholar, Tandy Scholar and RadioShack Science Chair.


Why do bees see and why matter? ›

Their ability to see ultraviolet light gives them an advantage when seeking nectar. Many patterns on flowers are invisible to humans. These nectar “bulls-eyes” are visible only to animals, such as bees, that have the ability to see ultra-violet light. This “bee vision” makes finding nectar much easier.

What did Albert Einstein say about bees? ›

So it is with pardonable pride that beekeepers have been known to endorse quotes like the one attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.”

How does a bee see? ›

Bees, like many insects, see from approximately 300 to 650 nm. That means they can't see the color red, but they can see in the ultraviolet spectrum (which humans cannot). Bees can also easily distinguish between dark and light – making them very good at seeing edges.

What are 3 reasons why bees are important? ›

Here are the top 5 reasons why bees are important, they:
  • Help produce 1/3 of our food supply.
  • Help provide ½ of the world's fibers, oils, and other raw materials.
  • Help create many medicines.
  • Provide food for wildlife.
  • Help prevent soil erosion.
Aug 22, 2021

What are the top 5 reasons why bees are so important? ›

Bees are part of the biodiversity on which we all depend for our survival. They provide high-quality food—honey, royal jelly and pollen — and other products such as beeswax, propolis and honey bee venom.

What colours do bees see? ›

Bees are also thought to be trichromatic, but that bees cannot see red because they don't have a photoreceptor for it. However, they can see the ultraviolet (UV) end of the light spectrum and so so they make colour combinations from blue, green and ultraviolet.

How long would humans live if bees died? ›

If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live. The line is usually attributed to Einstein, and it seems plausible enough. After all, Einstein knew a lot about science and nature, and bees help us produce food.

Do cell phones affect bees? ›

Do cell phones kill honeybees? Though you might have heard media reports that say so, the short answer is no, there's no reliable evidence that cell phone activity causes bees to die. That's according to renowned entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Can humans survive without bees? ›

There are plenty of other examples: apples, avocados, onions, and several types of berries rely heavily on bees for pollination. The disappearance of honeybees, or even a substantial drop in their population, would make those foods scarce. Humanity would survive—but our dinners would get a lot less interesting.

How do bees see humans? ›

They Have Unique Color Vision

Unlike humans—whose color vision is based on red, blue, and green—bees' color vision is based on blue, green, and ultraviolet light. While bees can't see the color red, they can see UV light that's invisible to the human eye.

Can bees see people? ›

Rather than specifically recognizing people, these nectar-feeding creatures view us as "strange flowers," the researchers say. And while they might not be able to identify individual humans, they can learn to distinguish features that are arranged to look like faces.

Why do bees have 5 eyes? ›

The short answer is:

The two large eyes at the side of the head (known as 'compound eyes') are used for picking up shapes and colours in the immediate environment, whilst the three small eyes on the top of the head (known as the 'ocelli') are important for navigation and orientation.

What is special about a bee? ›

Bees are the world's top pollinators.

After 100 million years of evolution, bees are the perfect pollinators. Their longstanding relationship with plants makes them perfectly adapted to recognize flowers and collect pollen; the length of a bee's tongue is even adapted to what flower they feed on.

Why bees are important facts? ›

Bee Facts. Bees have been here about 30 million years! Bees are important because they pollinate approximately 130 agricultural crops in the US including fruit, fiber, nut, and vegetable crops. Bee pollination adds approximately 14 billion dollars annually to improved crop yield and quality.

What are the top 10 reasons why bees are so important? ›

Top 10 Reasons Why Bees are Important
  • Pollination.
  • The significance of bees in food webs.
  • Bees' financial impact on the economy.
  • The role of bees in biodiversity.
  • Trees require bees!
  • Bees save elephants and may even save the lives of humans!
  • Bees assist small-scale farmers.
Oct 18, 2022

Why are bees so important essay? ›

Crops rely on bees to assist their reproduction and bring them life. Bees are renowned in facilitating pollination for most plant life, including over 100 different vegetable and fruit crops. Without bees, there would be a huge decrease in pollination, which later result in reduce in plant growth and food supplies.

What would happen without bees? ›

Without bees, the availability and diversity of fresh produce would decline substantially, and human nutrition would likely suffer. Crops that would not be cost-effective to hand- or robot-pollinate would likely be lost or persist only with the dedication of human hobbyists.

Do bees have 3 eyes? ›

Eyes – Incredible as it may seem, the honey bee has FIVE eyes, two large compound eyes and three smaller ocelli eyes in the centre of its head.

Can bees see in the dark? ›

They actively forage for food, and have evolved the ability to see and fly in the dark. The bees which can fly at night are mainly tropical species. Bees active at night gather nectar and pollen from flowers which are open at night time, and offer generous amounts of pollen and nectar.

Can bees see heat? ›

These warmer cells are only found on part of the flower, directing the bees towards its nectar supply, their ultimate goal in visiting the flower. And bees can detect them thanks to special heat sensors in their legs and antennae.

What would we eat if bees died? ›

Furthermore, bees are responsible for the reproduction of alfalfa and clover, which feed cattle and other grazing animals, so without them we would lose a significant portion of our milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and ice creams. There is no doubt that without these delicious foods, our lives would become duller.

What would happen if all ants died? ›

Imbalance in ecology

Ants are the top predators. Ants scavenge on tiny organisms and prey on insects larger than them – this behavior helps create an ecological balance. Additionally, ants are the foundation of the food pyramid. If ants went extinct, the food chain would collapse, and it would affect every organism.

Why we Cannot live without bees? ›

Put simply, we cannot live without bees. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that pollinators like bees and butterflies help pollinate approximately 75 percent of the world's flowering plants. They pollinate roughly 35 percent of the world's food crops—including fruits and vegetables.

Does WIFI affect bees? ›

For example, the reported global reduction in bees and other insects is plausibly linked to the increased radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation in the environment. 17 Honeybees are among the species that use magnetoreception, which is sensitive to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields" navigation.

Do magnets affect bees? ›

Magnets, magnetic field fluctuations and geomagnetic disturbances impair the homing ability of honey bees (Apis mellifera).

Is 5G harmful for bees? ›

It has been shown that alternating electromagnetic fields can have a harmful effect on bees. Exposure standards are considered, an analysis of the 5G electromagnetic radiation (EMR) effect on bees and methods of protection against exposure is carried out.

Why do bees keep us alive? ›

They are critical pollinators: they pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. Honey bees are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops. That's only the start. We may lose all the plants that bees pollinate, all of the animals that eat those plants and so on up the food chain.

Why do bees matter so much to humans? ›

Bees have cultural and environmental importance as pollinators and producers of honey and medicinal products. The movement of pollen between plants is necessary for plants to fertilize and reproduce. Both farmed and wild bees control the growth and quality of vegetation — when they thrive, so do crops.

Do bees eat honey? ›

Summary. Interestingly, all species of bees that make honey also eat it. They use it as an energy source, and it is packed with the nutrients they need to remain healthy. Let's take a closer look at their eating process and why bees eat honey!

Can bees see in the dark? ›

They actively forage for food, and have evolved the ability to see and fly in the dark. The bees which can fly at night are mainly tropical species. Bees active at night gather nectar and pollen from flowers which are open at night time, and offer generous amounts of pollen and nectar.

Why do bees have 5 eyes? ›

The short answer is:

The two large eyes at the side of the head (known as 'compound eyes') are used for picking up shapes and colours in the immediate environment, whilst the three small eyes on the top of the head (known as the 'ocelli') are important for navigation and orientation. More information below.

Why are bees attracted to light? ›

at night any bright light will attract bees and other things like moths because it acts like the sun to them. if it is happening at night, this will disrupt their day and night schedule.

Do bees have 3 eyes? ›

Eyes – Incredible as it may seem, the honey bee has FIVE eyes, two large compound eyes and three smaller ocelli eyes in the centre of its head.

What are bees afraid of? ›

Ordinary (non-phobic) fear of bees in adults is generally associated with lack of knowledge. The general public is not aware that bees attack in defense of their hive, or when accidentally squashed, and an occasional bee in a field presents no danger.
Fear of bees
Other namesApiphobia

Why can't bees fly in the rain? ›

They can fly in light rain, but they don't like to. They use the sun for navigation, so cloudy, wet weather isn't their favorite thing. A heavy rain can make their wings wet, slowing them down. If the raindrops are really big, they can break a bee's wing.

Why do bees fly around your head? ›

They may fly at your face or buzz around over your head. These warning signs should be heeded, since the bees may be telling you that you have come into their area and are too close to their colony for comfort both theirs and yours!

Do bees have a heart? ›

Some insects, bees included, have a heart and an aorta (the vessel leading out of the heart) that pumps the blood and gives it some semblance of direction (from the back of the insect to the front), but beyond that there is no circulatory system. The heart floats in the hemolymph along with everything else.

What are bees eyes called? ›

Ocelli, sometimes called simple eyes, aid in the detection of sunlight, or light intensity in general. Thus, the ocelli help bees navigate during flight. Honey bees have two antennae that come out of the face between the compound eyes (Figures 2 and 4).

Why are bees attracted to me? ›

If you look or smell like a flower, you are more likely to attract the attention of a bee. They love the smell of some sunscreens, shampoos, perfumes and aftershaves. They also love flowery prints and shiny jewelry and buckles. That's why beekeepers wear white, without accessories.

What does it mean when a bee crosses your path? ›

The bee spirit animal is a helpful reminder that no one is an island. If you're going it alone, it could be time to enlist the help of others, whether they are experts, friends, family members, or people you hire to work for you. The bee reminds you to get the help you need.

Do bees like blue? ›

Bees' color preference drives flowers to evolve a blue glow

Many wild bees prefer flowers in the violet-blue range—in part because these blossoms tend to produce high volumes of nectar. But it's not easy for plants to produce blue flowers.

Do bees sleep? ›

Fascinating facts. It was the first record of sleep in any invertebrate. Honeybees sleep between 5 & 8 hours a day. More rest at night when darkness prevents them going out to collect pollen & nectar.

Which animal has most eyes? ›

Dragonflies (Anisoptera) Some species of dragonfly have more than 28,000 lenses per compound eye, a greater number than any other living creature.

What color are bees eyes? ›

Black is the most common eye colour for bees, although there are some species of bees that have different coloured eyes. Blue Carpenter Bees have stunning blue eyes, while silver Leafcutter Bees have pale green eyes.


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