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Do Bees Have Lungs? (How Do Bees Breathe?)

No, bees don’t have lungs, nostrils, or gills – but they do still breathe. They have their own way of doing so, with a combination of spiracles and air sacs.

These spiracles and air sacs are the bee’s respiratory system, and it’s quite different from the respiratory system in humans.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about bees, but this we know.

Read on to learn about the bee’s respiratory system and how it works.

Do Bees Have Lungs?

No, bees don’t have lungs. Bees, like all other animals, need oxygen to survive. They have their own respiratory system, one found in many insects, involving spiracles and air sacs (known as tracheal sacs).

Bees do not breathe through their mouths as we do but through particular respiratory organs called spiracles. 

There are 10 spiracles on a bee’s body, located in the thorax and abdomen. These are little holes in the body, where air can get in and out.

bee spiracles location

When bees contract their muscles in the abdomen, the air is pushed out of the spiracles. When they relax their muscles again, the air is let in. The air is then let into the trachea system (the little air sacs) and is distributed to the rest of the body, controlled by valves. [1]

Spiracles are one-way holes, meaning, they can’t let air in and out at the same time. Much like we can’t breathe in and out at the same time.

Spiracles

Spiracles are small holes in the abdomen and thorax of a bee through which air goes in and out. 

Oxygen is taken in on inhalation, and carbon dioxide is released while exhaling. 

Spiracles do not open and close as human lungs do. Instead, they are muscular valves that open little holes in the exoskeleton.

This back pressure causes the tracheal tubes to inflate like tiny balloons. The more spiracles opened, the more the inflation of the trachea tubes, and therefore the greater volume of air is let in. 

The valves do not need to open wide because the volume of air entering with each breath is small.

bee spiracles

Trachea

Trachea (plural tracheae), meaning ‘tube,’ is the term given to the respiratory tract of insects. It consists of cylindrical tubes which repeatedly branch, reaching into even the smallest spaces within the insect’s body (a space, incidentally known as a “cell”). 

The tracheal system essentially acts as a transport network for gases – it takes oxygen in and gets rid of carbon dioxide.

The trachea is attached to the spiracles. When the spiracles open, and the bee pulls in oxygen, it’s directly transported into the tubes.

The trachea is exceptionally efficient at the gas exchange because its ends are heavily moistened with hemolymph. Thus, allowing oxygen to diffuse through them into the body quickly.

bee trachea

Tracheal Sacs (Air Sacs)

Tracheal sacs are air pockets present in the bee. They work like bellows, inflating and deflating. 

These air sacs work as extensions of the tracheal tubes (where gasses are transported), and improve the flow of gas by increasing the surface area within the tracheal system.

In insects, a continuous tracheal system is used to assist the transport of gases around the body for gaseous exchange. 

How Do Bees Breathe?

Bee’s respiratory system is a complex process involving air sacs on the abdomen, trachea (hollow tubes), abdominal spiracles (openings used for breathing), tracheal sacs (air sacs where gas can flow through), and tracheoles (smaller branches off of the trachea). 

Air enters the bee’s body through the spiracle, located on each side of the first abdominal segment.

A bee’s body consists of a head, thorax, and abdomen (three main “parts”), six legs (three per side), two antennae, two compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny lenses (arranged into 250+ ommatidia ), and one stinger.

Related: Bee Anatomy

bee anatomy

Here’s what the breathing process looks like:

Air will be pulled in from the 10 spiracles (the holes in the abdomen and thorax). From here, the air is directly transported into the tracheal system (tubes carrying gasses – oxygen and carbon dioxide). 

The trachea then branches out into smaller tubes, situated near each muscle group in the bee’s body.

Throughout this system, there will be small air sacs, which will help increase the flow of oxygen as it’s distributed.

When the bee then contracts its muscles, it’ll push carbon dioxide out the same way oxygen came in.

Can Bees Breathe Underwater?

No, bees can’t breathe underwater. To breathe underwater, you need a way of filtering the oxygen in the water. This is what gills are used for. Bees can’t do that, as they don’t have gills. 

Despite this fact, however, they can last longer submerged in the water than humans and, for unknown reasons, often survive with no complications. 

Bees also use some very interesting tactics to survive when submerged in water.

Bees can survive more than 5 minutes underwater. They will catch onto an air bubble, and use the air inside to stay alive for as long as possible. If the air bubble lasts long enough for them to get out of the water, they will survive.

bee drinking water

The Difference Between Bees and Humans Respiration

The bee and human respiratory systems are complex processes, and they’re very different from one another. 

But they both have the same goal. 

That goal is to get new oxygen into the body while pushing out old carbon dioxide. The main difference between the two lies in how each species reaches that goal. 

Humans breathe air in and out through their mouth and nose which are connected to the trachea. This air is let into the lungs. The lung itself is composed of many lobes, and each lobe has tiny sacks known as alveoli (tiny air sacs).

human lungs

Inside the air sacs, oxygen moves across paper-thin walls to tiny blood vessels called capillaries and into your blood. A protein called hemoglobin in the red blood cells then carries the oxygen around your body.

The air sacs are also where carbon dioxide passes out through exhalation.

Despite that both systems are fundamentally different, some similarities can be seen in humans and bees.

Instead of one hole that leads to the tracheal system, bees have multiple holes. When bees inhale, the air will also be led through tubes. Bees also have air sacs, though these are used to increase the efficiency of breathing, instead of oxygenating their blood.

Bees don’t actually have blood – they have hemolymph instead. In hemolymph, there are no red blood cells.

Tracheal Mites

Tracheal mites are a relatively new pest that bees have to deal with, first discovered in the United States around 1984. [2]

Tracheal mites are microscopic, white parasites. They reproduce inside the bee’s trachea (breathing tubes). 

A female mite will crawl into a bee’s trachea, where she lays her eggs and dies. When the new mites hatch, it will kill off the honey bee that’s been infected.

Tracheal mites will also feed off of the hemolymph inside of bees. This parasite results in weakened respiratory functions, which leads to sick and weakened bees. In worst-case scenarios, these parasites can kill an entire colony of honey bees.

Bees are most often infected with these parasites if they’re already weakened due to other external factors, such as food shortages, lack of pollen, or other stresses.

red mite

These little mites are invisible to the human eye. Some symptoms are:

  • A lot of bees will crawl near the entrance to the hive, as they are unable to fly.
  • Big portions of the colony will stay inside the nest instead of foraging.

Conclusion

To summarize, bees don’t have lungs, but they still have a respiratory system. Their respiratory system is made up of spiracles, tracheal tubes (tubes used to transport gasses around the body), and air sacs, which together help the bee inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

The spiracles are small holes in a bee’s abdomen and thorax, directly connected to the tracheal tubes. The air sacs (or tracheal sacs) are used to increase the flow of gasses for more efficient breathing.

bee alone at night

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do Bees Not Have Lungs?

Bees don’t have lungs, as their respiratory system works differently than the one humans have. Instead of breathing through lungs, as we do, they breathe through spiracles located on their abdomen and thorax. 

It is believed that the lack of lungs makes it easier for bees to fly because fewer organs are weighing them down.

Do Bees Control Their Breathing?

Yes, bees control their breathing. When bees contract their muscles, they will push out carbon dioxide from their system, and when they relax their muscles again, oxygen will be let in. Lungs work a little similarly. If you contract your abdominal muscles, you will automatically push out air.

Do Bees Need Oxygen?

Bees need oxygen to survive, but the amount of oxygen required for a bee colony is relatively small. Adult honeybees generally consume around 40µl of oxygen per minute, but this depends on whether they’re foraging, the temperature, and the size of the bee. [3]

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.