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How Do Bees See the World? (Why It’s Important)

One of the most fascinating things about bees is how they see the world. Bees have evolved an incredibly advanced vision.

They are easily able to find food, communicate with one another, and even avoid predators using their compound eyes and simple eyes.

But how do bees see? What do they see? And why is it important for us to know? 

To understand this, we first need to explore the basics of bee sight.

How Do Bees See?

Bees use their two compound eyes to see the world around them. Bees also see with their three simple eyes that can detect light and motion. Bees also see the world very differently than us, since they see other colors, and can detect movement and colors faster.

The two compound eyes are made out of about 5,000 ommatidia (lenses), that work together to form a larger image. Each ommatidium functions as a pixel on the image. [1]

The photoreceptors (responsible for detecting color) in bees’ eyes are a bit different from the ones found in humans, making it so they can’t see red, but instead can see ultraviolet light.

bee mandible close up 2

Bees can also see color faster than humans, making their hunt for food much easier. They can quickly (while moving at high speeds), spot flowers that contain nectar.

Another important aspect of bee sight is their reaction time and the speed at which they can detect changes in light intensity.

Their ocelli are very light-sensitive, which is useful for multiple things.

First of all, they use it to orient themselves as well as navigate when foraging. Second, it’s useful to detect threats. While they’re flying, predators might attack. They can, very quickly, detect changes in light above them, evading predators.

How Do Bees See While Flying?

Bees are built for flight. Their vision is built similarly. As they’re often on the move, they can very quickly detect light, color, and movement. This is useful for foraging and detecting threats.

Their field of view is also quite big, giving them a good “scanning” vision.

Bee vision is well suited for this type of scanning behavior. They have very good depth perception and can easily estimate how far away objects are.

To give you an idea of how well they can see while flying, imagine you’re driving a car, looking at a field of flowers – except, you can see every individual flower perfectly separated, and not as one big blur.

Related: How Do Bees Fly?

bee flying towards flower

How Bees See Distance

Bees measure distance using optical flow. Optical flow is the movement of objects, as the observer moves. In other words, the faster something moves, in relation to the position of a bee, the closer it is.

“Optical flow is defined as the apparent motion of individual pixels on the image plane.” [2]

How Good Are Bees’ Eyesight?

Bees have very good eyesight when compared to other invertebrates. They have a large number of ommatidia (lenses), as well as a highly developed contrast detection. They can both see things better, as well as to detect edges very well.

Do Bees Have Night Vision?

Most bees are active during the day, where they use light from the sun for navigation. But there are nocturnal bee species.

While these bees can’t see in complete darkness, they’ve evolved bigger ocelli (the simple eyes used for light detection).

These ocelli are better at picking up light from weak light sources, such as the moon on a cloudy night. As long as there’s a little light, they can find their way.

They will forage and fly around during the night, where they’ll rely on their enhanced “night vision”.

Related: Can Bees See in the Dark? 

bee eyes close up view

Bees Field of View

Bees see almost in a full circle. Their field of view covers more than 300 degrees. Their big compound eyes, which use thousands of tiny lenses to create an image, are placed on the side of their head, which makes this possible. [3]

Humans, on the other hand, almost only see straight ahead, with a field of view of approximately 120 degrees.

This large field of view helps bees forage, as well as scout for threats, more efficiently.

How Do Bees See Colors?

Bees can see colors, and they can even see some colors that humans can’t see. 

The human retina only has three types of color receptors: red, green, and blue. Bees’ receptors are different, detecting ultraviolet light (UV) instead of red.

This means, bees can’t see red, but they can see ultraviolet light instead.

Bees’ ability to see ultraviolet light is crucial when it comes to foraging. Not many people know this, but flowers have ultraviolet light patterns on their petals. While humans can’t see these, bees can.

Bees use these patterns as guidelines for finding nectar, and flowers use them for attracting important pollinators.

The contrast between light and dark is also important to bees. The petals are usually very brights, to attract bees, while the center is black, so let bees know where to find nectar.

Related: Do bees see color?

Honey Bee on a Flower

How Does Color and Light Work?

Color is processed by our eyes and brain. Different colors come from what types of light an object reflects our eye. The light reflected will have a specific wavelength, which is how color is distinguished by our eyes.

When the light hits a blue object, that object will absorb all light except for blue light with a wavelength of 380nm to 500nm. Those waves are reflected and processed by our eyes.

Bees’ eyes can’t process light with a wavelength larger than 700nm.

Trichromatic Vision

Bees have trichromatic vision, just like humans. Trichromatic vision allows insects to perceive colors with three photoreceptors. The photoreceptors are able to process one color each: green, blue, and ultraviolet light for bees. [4]

UV photoreceptors are sensitive to ultraviolet light, which humans can’t see. Blue (B) receptors sense blue-green wavelengths of light that lie between UV and green (G).

Honey bee on saffron flower. Crocus sativus blooming purple plan

Fast Color Identification

Scientists have found that bees are able to differentiate between different hues faster than humans. This ability helps them find the flowers they need for food and reproduction. [5]

Bees are able to extract the maximum genetic diversity from a single patch of flowers by identifying different colors.

Without the ability to identify colors, pollination would be much harder for bees, affecting both humans and the bee population. Bees are needed for 75% of plant species that provide 90% of food around the world.

The fast color identification helps bees move between flowers fast, as well as find the best flowers with the most nectar while flying above a group of flowers.

Related: Flowers That Attract Bees

Two Bees on a purple flower

Polarized Light

Bees use polarized light much like we humans use color. It provides them with important information about their environment, and they even use it to navigate when foraging.

Polarized light is defined as “Light that is reflected or transmitted through certain media so that all vibrations are restricted to a single plane.”

Meaning, bees can easily detect polarized light patterns in the sky to navigate and find their way. [6]

A study of bumblebees (Bombus Terrestris) also showed that they learn polarization patterns on artificial “flowers”, which helps them when foraging.

What Colors Do Bees Hate?

Bees hate darker colors. They see these colors as threats, as they resemble predators. Lighter colors are “safe” for bees, which is why beekeeper suits are white.

Bees try to avoid dark colors when they can. This is why we mostly see bees with lighter colored patterns such as yellows and whites.

Related: What colors do bees hate & why?

adult bumblebee

Bee Eyes and How They Work

Bees have 5 eyes in total, and, as mentioned, they have two kinds of eyes:

  • Compound eyes (2)
  • Simple eyes (3)

These have different use cases – and here’s how both of them work.

Compound Eyes

Honeybees have two compound eyes. Their compound eyes are made up of thousands of long, thin sections called ommatidia. 

Each ommatidium is its own separate unit, with its own lens, cornea, pigment cells, light receptor cells (photoreceptors), and transparent cone.

Depending on the type of bee (worker, queen, or drone), they have different amounts of these lenses, drones having the most of up to 10,000. Workers have approximately 5,000 ommatidia.

close-up-of-honey-bee

Ocelli (Simple Eyes)

Ocelli (Simple Eyes) are also called simple eyes or pigment-pit eyes. Bees have three ocelli, each being up to 1 mm in diameter. These three eyes sit on top of the bee’s head, in between the compound eyes.

These kinds of eyes are typically small and relatively simple in structure, only able to detect light and distinguish the direction from which the light is coming. 

This makes them ideal for guiding and navigation. 

These eyes have evolved independently in several different bee groups, but all are thought to function mainly as brightness sensors. 

Nocturnal bees will have larger ocelli than diurnal bees.

How Do Bees See Plants?

Bees are visual beings. They use sight to find food sources. They visit flowers in search of nectar and pollen, while also spreading the plants’ pollen to other nearby plants so they can reproduce. 

As stated earlier in this article, bees see the world differently than humans, as they can see ultraviolet light. 

This has a big effect on the way they see plants.

Plants have developed the ability to produce ultraviolet light patterns on their petals, as well as take on colors that the bees are attracted to.

Hence, bees see flowers much more brightly and clearly than we do. The bright violet and blue flowers attract bees the most.

bumblebee on a flower full of pollen

How Do Bees See Humans?

It’s unknown how bees see humans. Most insects don’t have the enhanced sight that bees are equipped with, meaning, most insects see us as a blur.

While bees know that we exist, they don’t know what we are. They’re not intelligent or developed enough to be able to conceptualize humans. Yet, they know that we’re here and that we’re alive.

They may see us as friendly creatures, or they may see us as threats (like big birds).

Are Bees Attracted to Light?

Yes, bees are attracted to light. This can be explained by a natural mechanism called phototaxis. Phototaxis triggers a phototactic response in organisms, whether it be bees or flowers. This response can either be positive or negative:

  • A positive phototactic reponse causes organisms to move towards light sources.
  • A negative phototactic reponse causes organisms to move away from light sources.

Since bees have a positive phototactic response, they move towards the light.

Related: Are bees attracted to light?

How Do Bees Navigate?

Bees are known for their hives and ability to make delicious honey, but did you know they’re really good at navigating?

Bees use different methods for navigating, but the two primary ways of finding their way are:

  • Using the sun and patterns of polarized light as reference points
  • Referencing landmarks to find their way

By doing this, bees can almost fly straight back home after foraging, even if they’ve flown far and wide to collect nectar and pollen.

Bees also do something called the “waggle dance”.

This is a form of communication, where they let other bees know where they can find food. Bees do this by wagging their behinds, as well as flying in a specific pattern. The patterns help other bees know where to find good flowers.

bees flying together around the flower

Conclusion

Bees see the world in a unique way. They use their compound eyes to detect movement, while they can use their ocelli for light detection. Both color detection and light detection are very different from humans’ sight, which give bees an advantage when foraging.

FAQs

Do Bees See 360 Degrees?

Bees cannot see the complete 360 degrees around them. Their field of view is limited to 300 degrees, which is still a lot. For comparison, humans have a field of view of 120 degrees.

How Many Ommatidia Do Bees Have?

Not all types of bees have the same number of ommatidia, but they usually have around 5,600 ommatidia. Worker bees have between 4,500-5,500, while drones have upwards of 10,000.

Are Bees Blind?

No, bees are not blind. In fact, they have evolved a highly enhanced sight, making them see incredibly well while on the fly.

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.