Last Updated on August 19, 2021
Bee eyesight is a complex subject. Bees have compound eyes. These eyes allow them to see the world in a way that is very difficult for us to understand as we only have two eyes – not 13803 like bees do. In this article, we unpack how bee color vision works. We take a look at the colors bees are attracted to, and what colors bees can not see. So do bees see in color? Yes, but it’s complicated.
Do Bees See In Color?
Bees can see color in their compound eyes. Each compound eye is divided into 6900 facets – these form individual small eyes called ommatidia. Every ommatidium is equipped with eight light-sensing cells. The cells can detect different colors of light. One cell can detect UV light, two see blue light and four see yellow-green light. Depending on which source you read there may be an extra cell in there measuring UV as well.
If we unpack this a bit, bees have 6900 facets in each compound eye – that is 13800 facets. In other words, they have 1725 cells detecting UV, 3450 that see blue, and 6900 that see yellow-green light.
For a really interesting journey into the philosophy of science around bee vision, as well as bee vision itself, this book is a great work.
What Colors Are Bees Attracted To?
It is important to at this point state that our human eyes have the ability to detect three colors red, green, and blue. Bees see UV, blue and yellow-green. Flowers have evolved to attract bees because bees pollinate flowers. Humans cut flowers off and give them to their loved ones, and even their deceased. In this regard flowers are not really trying to attract humans to them, so the colors we see are not what the flower is showing the bee – they are just an accident of our vision.
In this regard, a flower that we see as pale white may in fact be glowing a very bright color in the UV spectrum. This is the case – many blue and violet color flowers appear very bright in the UV spectrum and this is how the bees attract them. Seeing the yellow-green color is useful for navigation as trees tend to be green. The bee can spot a plant using this vision, and then narrow in as it gets closer looking for the brighter flowers in its desired spectra.
Read more about: How To Lure Bees Into A Hive
What Color Can Bees Not See?
Bees do not see red. Again, however, we do not know that something that we see as red, with our eyes does not have some sneaky veins in it that are reflecting UV. This is one of the reasons why red flowers are often attractive to other insects. It is also important to mention at this point that many red flowers produce huge and strong honey flows. Certain Eucalyptus species for example have bright red flowers – but these are from an ecosystem where honeybees are not native.
Bees can still learn to find nectar in flowers that are more difficult for them to see.
Why Are Bee Suits White?
Bees are less likely to be able to see something which has a light white color. This is why a bee suit is generally made from white or off-white material. There is an added advantage to the bee suit being white. White reflects heat. When you are dressed up as a spaceman on a hot humid sunny day the last thing you need is any additional heat.
Why Do Bees Get Angry With Dark Colors?
For a bee, a dark object will be seen as a complete lack of light. This is much the same for us. When you see a big black bear or buffalo next to you you get a bit of a fright. You are really seeing a lack of light, surrounded by everything else that is reflecting light. If the bear or buffalo moves, you jump.
For a bee it is similar. They know that green things generally are trees and are not a threat and they cannot see white things easily. If they see a dark object that moves, they are reasonably certain it is probably living, and potentially going to rob the hive.
If we look at common lifeforms that rob beehives, bears, honey badgers, baboons, drongo birds are all dark in color. The bees don’t like these creatures.
How Can We Use Bee Vision To Stop Bees Drifting Into The Wrong Beehive?
We know a bit about bee eyesight and know that bees do see in color, and know which colors as well.
When a bee flies up to a beehive, they are often painted white – a color they struggle to see. You can help the bees identify their unique hive. Paint stripes in blue, black, and various other bright colors on the front of the hive. This is a bit like a street number for your bees.
As the worker bee returns home, she is tired – she knows that she lives in this big box with a sort of background, and that is probably green, and there are some shapes around it. However, a tired lady flying home after a long shopping expedition in the forest can make a mistake and fly into the wrong hive. This can lead to some hives getting bigger and bigger because they capture all the workers. The other hives get weaker.
Painting bright stripes on the front of your hives can definitely help to reduce drifting and assist the bees identify which of the boxes in the apiary are theirs.
It is also important to make sure that any paint you do use is lead-free. We don’t need any more lead in our environment, and we really do not need bees, with their sticky little feet walking lead paint into the honey.
We hope this article has helped you understand how bees see their colorful world. Please share if you enjoyed the article.
Dr. Garth A. Cambray is a Canadian/South African entrepreneur and beekeeper with 28 years of experience in apiculture and specializes in adding value to honey. His Ph.D. research developed a new advanced continuous fermentation method for making mead that has resulted in a number of companies globally being able to access markets for mead. His company, Makana Meadery, exports honey mead to the USA where it is available to discerning connoisseurs. He has also developed technologies to commercially manufacture organic honey vinegar in Zambia for export globally. He holds a few patents globally in the ethanol industry and believes in technology and knowledge transfer for human development and environmental sustainability. One of his proudest achievements is the fact that the wind farm he started at one of his old apiary sites has essentially made his hometown carbon neutral.