How Do Bees See Flowers?

Last Updated: 18.11.19

 

Bees have specially designed eyes that allow them to see their surroundings in a very different way than we do – they have both simple and compound eyes, that enable bees to see ultraviolet light. Flowers will use colors to attract bees to the areas that are filled with nectar, and, according to beekeeping book reviews, this process makes pollination possible. 

As most literature on bees will tell you, these tiny insects are vital to our planet’s survival as we know it. It is important to know how to care for these insects, but it is of utmost importance to fully understand the undeniable impact bees have through the pollination process they are almost solely responsible for.

Scientists consider bees to be one of the keystone species of the world today. They are proved to be so important to any given ecosystem, that it will collapse altogether without them. Most of the crops grown for commercial purposes depend on bee pollination for survival. Without bees in the world, we would no longer see most of the food we eat, and therefore, we would starve.

Bees are the ultimate champions of the pollinating world, and they use a wide range of senses to get this accomplished. One of the most important ones is their sight. The astonishing eyesight of bees has been a source of fascination for the scientific world for a long time. The way bees, and humans alike see things is a result of light being reflected in a certain way.

Close to a hundred years ago, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist called Karl von Frisch was the first person to ever prove that bees can actually see colors. Not only do they see colors, but most of their foraging activity depends on this trait alone. Flowers will use color guidance to show bees where they have the most nectar and pollen, and bees make the most of that.

 

How do bees see colors?

When an object is hit by light, some of this light gets absorbed by the object, while some of it gets reflected. The portion of reflected light is what our eyes perceive as color. The same thing happens in the case of bees, with the main difference that bees see a much wider color spectrum than we do. This is extremely important to bees.

The bee’s ability to perceive colors is one of the main reasons flowers have their petals colored in a different way than their leaves. Plants use this to attract pollinator bees to the areas holding the nectar and pollen. Bees also have the ability, unlike humans, to see ultraviolet light, which gives them a huge advantage when seeking out pollen and nectar.

Some flowers, such as sunflowers, pansies, and primroses, actually have a specific pattern on their petals that is only visible in ultraviolet light, therefore it can only be perceived by insects. These patterns act as a guidance system toward the nectar and pollen filled areas of the flower, making sure bees are fast in hitting the nectar “bulls-eye”.

One color bees cannot see is red. The reason for this is that, just like humans, bees are trichromatic, but the spectrum differs. While humans make up the color they see based on the three main colors of red, green, and blue, bees do the same thing based on the three main colors they perceive, which are ultraviolet light, green, and blue.   

Bees simply do not have a photoreceptor for the color red. The interesting thing here is that bees can see reddish wavelengths, such as orange and yellow. Another interesting color bees can perceive is called “bee’s purple” and it is a combination of ultraviolet light and yellow. People cannot see it. Other common colors in bee sight are purple, blue, and green.

According to scientists, the colors that attract bees the most are purple, blue, and violet. This may very well be one of the main reasons for most flowers that depend on pollination for survival to be colored with different shades of these three colors. Attracting as many pollinating insects as possible ensures the thriving of their genetic pool. 

How fast can bees see?

Another interesting trait of the bees’ sight is that they are able to see colors and, also, identify specific objects at a much faster speed than humans do. The color vision of bees is known to be the fastest one in the animal world, and five-times faster than that of humans. This comes very much in handy when a bee is flying at a high speed while trying to find the perfect flower to feed on.

For instance, when we drive at high speed and look out the window at the flower field by the side of the road, it is impossible for us to distinguish one flower from another. For bees, this is a whole different story since they have a much shorter response time to what they see. This means bees can actually see better when traveling at high-speed rates, which is yet another wonderful adaptation mechanism to the living conditions of these insects.

Another key element when it comes to bee’s sight is their ability to correctly approximate distances. We already know that bees see better while they fly, but we also need to understand that bees can see depth, they can see tridimensional and they are very good at judging distances. They communicate all of this collected data of good foraging sites to the hive. 

 

How do bees’ eyes look like?

Bees, just like some other insects, have two types of eyes, each with its individual traits and functions. The three smaller eyes located in the top-center of the head are called ocelli. The ocelli have single lenses, helping the bee navigate and maintain stability. The term “ocelli” comes from the Latin term “ocellus” and it means little eye.

Bees also have a pair of compound eyes. These are complex examples of nature’s engineering at work. Each of these complex eyes is made of thousands of little lenses called facets. Each of these facets takes in one very small part of the bee’s vision. The bee’s brain works all of the images together, creating a mosaic-like image. 

Worker bees have approximately 6900 facets in each eye, while drones have up to 8600 facets. Each of them is connected to a tiny tube, containing eight cells that respond to light. Light is what enables these wonderful creatures to see, forage for food and distinguish one color from another, creating a perfect image of the surrounding environment in their brain.

Because bees have this amazing ability to see and navigate their surrounding world, scientists made various attempts to create models that accurately mimic a bee’s sight. The first “bee eye” cameras were most definitely not something we can call a success. They were very hard to use because of the many cameras they contained. 

It was only in 2010 that German researchers finally created a “bee’s eye view” camera. The key to this camera’s success was the combination of lenses and mirrors that were used in order to create a 280-degree field of vision, just like bees have. This is just a small step people made in trying to mimic the bee’s extremely complex vision system.

How much is a bee’s sight worth?

The contribution bees make to the overall world economies is staggering. Research conducted by the University of Reading scientists showed that bees contribute more to the UK yearly economy, in particular, than the Royal family does from its tourism activities. In the U.S., for instance, bees are the super-pollinators worth over 14 billion U.S. dollars in crop productions. 

With the incredible vision they pose, bees have the ability to pollinate plants with extreme accuracy. Overcast skies, as well as windy weather, are definitely no match for this insect’s unbelievable sight. Bees can see what we cannot, making them the ultimate pollinators in the world.

 

 

 

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