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Do Bees See Color & Which Can They See?

Bees see the world very differently than we do, and they have incredible vision.

But what about color?

Bees can see colors, but they have different color receptors than humans, meaning they see colors differently. The color receptors are responsible for processing colors, as well as communicating that information to our brain.

Depending on what colors the color receptors respond to, different species can see different colors.

But can all types of honeybees tell the difference between blue and yellow flowers, for example? How many types of bee vision are there anyway?

This blog post will explore what it’s like for a bee to take in the world around them using their eyes.

Do Bees See Color?

Bees, like humans and most other animals, can see in color. Bees have, also like humans, trichromatic color vision, meaning their retina contains three types of color receptors, which can all pick up on different colors.

Bees have three cone receptors (the receptors responsible for processing colors) for green, blue, and ultraviolet light.

The spectrum of colors that bees can see covers almost all the colors humans can but is not identical. Bees have access to color ranges beyond what humans can see, although they cannot process red. [1]

bumblee bees on a flower

What Colors Can Bees See?

Bees can see a range of colors from green to ultraviolet. They can also see most yellows, but they can’t see reds.

Their three cone receptors are evenly split between green, blue, and ultraviolet, meaning these are the colors that stand out the most to them. These are also the colors of flowers that attract the most bees (mostly blue and violet).

Bees use ultraviolet light to navigate between flowers, find the best one, and locate where the nectar is.

Bees can see light with wavelengths between 300-650 nm. All colors come in the form of light with different wavelengths. Red light has a wavelength of approximately 700, while blue light has a wavelength of 380 to 500 nm. [2]

bees flying together around the flower

What Colors Can’t Bees See?

Bees can’t see red colors, as they don’t have cone photoreceptors for these shades. They can see orange (a mix between red and yellow), but as these get darker, they become more black to the bees.

Since they can’t process red, bees will simply see this color as black.

Can Bees See Orange?

Bees can see orange. Even though they don’t have cone photoreceptors specifically for yellow, yellow is close enough to green (in terms of the wavelength of the light) so that bees can process the light.

Can Bees See Red?

Bees can’t see red. Red light has a wavelength of approximately 700 nm, which is out of the visible spectrum for bees. Bees can process light at wavelengths below 650 nm.

Can Bees See Black?

On average, dark colors have a lower reflectance than bright colors. This means that black absorbs more light, and less of it is reflected to your eye. In fact, black reflects only about 4% of the visible spectrum back to your eye.

So can bees see black? Yes, they can.

bee flying at night

How Do Bees See Color? (Trichromatic Vision)

Bees have three photoreceptors in their ommatidia. This is called trichromatic vision. These photoreceptors are responsible for color perception and the resulting combination of the three colors – green, blue, and ultraviolet.

Bees, and humans, have two different kinds of photoreceptors:

  • Cones that process colors.
  • Rods that allow us to see in dim light.

Humans also have trichromatic vision, but our retina contains cone photoreceptors for red, green, and blue (RGB). Hence, we can’t process ultraviolet light, as our eyes can only process light with wavelengths of 380 to 700 nm. Ultraviolet light has a wavelength of 10 to 380 nm.

Here are some facts about bees photoreceptors:

  • Their photoreceptor cells are sensitive to green, blue, and ultraviolet light.
  • These photoreceptors are housed in an area of the eyeball called ommatidia.
  • The vast combinations of these three colors allow bees to see a kaleidoscope of information all at once.
  • Bees can remember a pattern of color and match it to a location with incredible accuracy.
bee mandible close up 2

How Do We Know That Bees See Color?

We have known for a very long time that honeybees have color vision. Their receptors for different colors are sensitive to ultraviolet, blue, and green wavelengths of light. It means their color vision is slightly different from ours. 

Now, how do we know this?

A lot of research has been conducted to further our knowledge of bees, primarily because they’re vital to plants and crops. Without bees, we’d run out of food.

In the research paper “SEEING IN COLOUR: A HUNDRED YEARS OF STUDIES ON BEE VISION”, Adrian G. Dyer, Jair E. Garcia, Mani Shrestha, and Klaus Lunau describe how more than 100 years of research have gone into studying bees and their vision. [3]

Several research groups in Germany conducted many tests on the matter.

One simple test was done, where bees were faced with a board of white, gray, and black tiles, and a simple blue one. The bees continuously gravitated towards the blue tile.

This is a simple test, that proves bees’ ability to see color. Similar, and more advanced, tests have been conducted throughout the years.

bumble bee on a purple flower

Why Ultraviolet Vision Is Important in Bees

Ultraviolet light, while invisible to humans, is an important factor when bees are foraging.

Bees’ ultraviolet vision allows them to see ultraviolet patterns on flowers. The flowers that produce the most nectar, have developed the ability to produce these patterns, in order to attract the pollinating bees.

The flowers will generate these patterns, showing bees exactly where they can find nectar. They work as guidelines, to improve the efficiency of bees’ work. [4]

As bees can detect colors very fast, they can quickly move from flower to flower, extracting all available nectar.

Bees also use ultraviolet vision when feeding larvae, or finding their way home. 

bee swarming anf flying out of the hive

What Color Are Bees Attracted To?

Bees are attracted to the colors of the flowers that produce the most nectar. This varies from climate to climate, and from region to region. 

A rule of thumb is, that bees are most attracted to blue and violet.

Several experiments have been conducted to prove this, where bees were faced with a choice between different colors. They’d almost always fly towards the colors similar to that of native flowers. [5]

Bees are also attracted to contrasting colors, meaning, the flowers that most stand out compared to their background. 

If flowers are in a green grass field, bees will bees more attracted to violet than green flowers. [6]

Related: Which colors are bees attracted to?

bee flying alone in a flower

What Colors Do Bees Hate?

Specific colors can anger, or agitate, bees. These colors are darker colors, like black, dark gray, or red (as bees see red as black). And there’s a good reason for this.

Bees are preyed upon by predators. They’ll often have to fly away when a bird is coming to eat it. These predators are often dark in color. If bees see something dark around their hive, and if it’s a moving object, they’ll see it as a threat.

If you want to avoid getting stung or attacked by bees, don’t wear dark colors.

Related: What colors do bees hate & why?

adult bumblebee

How Do Bees See?

Bees are known for their highly developed sense of sight. Their eyes are large and complex, with thousands of facets called ommatidia that give them superior vision. 

They have 5 eyes in total, two different kinds of eyes: compound eyes and ocelli (simple eyes). 

The compound eyes are used for seeing, detecting color, and finding new flowers for nectar, while the ocelli are used to detect light and motion.

By having two different kinds of eyes, bees have developed unusually good navigational skills, as well as incredible sight.

Bees’ ability to detect colors is very fast, and they have a very sharp vision while flying as well. Bees can easily detect individual flowers while flying. Compare that to humans driving – everything seems like a blur.

Related: How do bees see?

bee eyes close up view

Conclusion

Bees can see green, blue, and ultraviolet light (within the spectrum of 650 to 300 nm). This helps them with foraging, picking out the right flowers, as well as detecting threats.

They’re attracted to certain colors (mainly blue and violet), while other colors can trigger an aggressive response.

Bees’ have, like humans, trichromatic vision, meaning their retina contains three different cone photoreceptors, each responsible for their own color (green, blue, and ultraviolet light).

FAQs

What Color Do Bees See the Best?

Bees can see green, blue, and ultraviolet light the best. These are the main components of their trichromatic vision.

Which Colors Are Bees Blind To?

Bees are blind to red colors. These will simply be seen as black or grey tones, as their eyes can’t process light at these wavelengths (700 nm).

Do Bees Have a Favorite Color?

Bees do have a favorite color, but it changes depending on what region the bees live in. Bees’ favorite color directly translates into what color the flowers that produce the most nectar have. Usually, this is either blue or violet.

Can Bees See in the Dark?

Bees can’t see in complete darkness, but they can see at night. Some species of bees are nocturnal, meaning they forage at night. When they fly around in the darkness of the night, they’ll need to see.

These bees will have bigger ocelli, and they’ve developed an enhanced ability to see in the dark compared to diurnal bees (bees that are active during the day.

Related: Can bees see in the dark?

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.