A Honey Bee’s Perspective: Sight

Thursday 22 June 2023

A hive moved just a short distance will create difficulties for foraging honey bees returning home, which makes one question the visual ability of bees. Honey bee vision differs from vertebrate species in many ways, such as the speed of image detection and seeing certain colors and light, but their ultimate visual interpretation has similarities (Horridge 2009). When relocating their hive, honey bees depend on the sun’s relative location as a visual cue.  Other dynamic cues, such as plant life during the foraging season, are inconsistent and therefore may make hive recognition difficult (Borst 2018). Therefore, the appearance of sunlight is a more reliable navigational signal than the bee’s memory of the hives location.

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A Honey Bee’s Perspective: Sight

Honey bees have three small eyes in the top-center of their head, called ocelli, and two large eyes on the side of their head, called compound eyes (Riddle 2016). Ocelli have single lenses and help the bee maintain stability and navigation, using light intensity and spatial orientation (Riddle 2016). The compound eyes contain numerous simple eyes, called ommatidia, which are arranged together to form a hexagonal pattern (Horridge 2009). There are approximately 6,900 facets in worker bee eyes and 8,600 facets in drone bee eyes (Riddle 2016). Behind each hexagonal facet there are eight photoreceptors, detecting variations in light intensity (Rigosi et al. 2017).

Compound eye of the honey bee showing hexagonal shaped ommatidia, magnification: 100X (Raul Gonzalez Perez©2023

Honey bees can use celestial cues to determine their spatial position. Their eyes can detect polarized light and match polarization patterns in the sky to use as a navigational system, which is what bees use for the ‘waggle dance’ (Riddle 2016). Polarized light is sunlight that is sent in one direction after travelling through the atmosphere and can be seen by the bees even on cloudy days (Borst 2018). Bees can also easily distinguish between dark and light, making them very good at seeing the edges of objects, but they can have trouble between similar shapes that have smooth lines, such as circles and ovals (Shipman, 2011).

Like humans, honey bees are color trichromats, meaning they have three classes of photoreceptors maximally sensitive in three regions of the electromagnetic spectrum (Dyer et al. 2008). When comparing the function of each type of photoreceptor, the respective wavelengths are measured in units called nanometers or nm. The types of photoreceptors are S (short wavelength type) with an absorption peak at 344 nm (ultraviolet), M (medium wavelength type) with an absorption peak at 436 nm (blue), and L (large wavelength type) with an absorption peak at 544 nm (green) (Avargues-Weber et al. 2012). Therefore, honey bees can see roughly 300 to 650nm and humans can see 390 to 750nm on the electromagnetic spectrum, which means bees can see ultraviolet, but not red (Shipman 2011).

Resolution is maximized in the frontal part of honey bee’s eyes, meaning that their focus is fixed. The visual angle indicates the size of object which can be seen by the bee.  This angle, measured in degrees, is the distance between imaginary lines drawn from the focal point of the eye to the extreme edges of the object being visualized. So, a small or distant object will have a low visual angle and a large or near object will have a high visual angle.  Honey bees can clearly see an image that is as small as 1.9 degrees, which is approximately the width of a person’s thumb at arm’s length. The smallest object a bee can detect, although not clearly, is 0.6 degrees (Rigosi et al. 2017). Although relatively poor at seeing detail, when compared to vertebrates, bees are very good at detecting movement.  They can visualize movements that happen at 1/300th of a second, whereas humans can only detect at 1/50th of a second. So, honey bees may not be able to see as far as most vertebrate species but while flying, they can detect images much faster.

Some people assume that honey bees observe the world the same way humans do, but the bee’s eye has adapted to help the bee to be an efficient forager of flowers. While bees are flying at an average speed of over 20km/h, they need to be able to identify small flowers, predators, and their hives among vegetation. Honey bee eyes can do this due to their ability to detect certain types of light and the speed of image detection.

Written by John MacDonald, ATTTA Seasonal Apiculturist - johnmacdonald@perennia.ca

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Avargues-Weber A, Mota T, Giurfa M. 2012. New vistas on honey bee vision. Apidologie 43:244-268.

Borst P. 2018. What do bees see? Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping.

Dyer A, Spaethe J, Sabina P. 2008. Comparative psychophysics of bumblebee and honeybee colour discrimination and object detection. Journal of Comparative Physiology 194:617-627.

Horridge A. 2009. What does a honeybee see? And how do we know?: A critique of scientific reason. Chapter 5: The retina, sensitivity, and resolution. 85-116.

Riddle S. 2016. How bees see and why it matters. Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping.

Rigosi E, Wiederman S, O’Carroll D. 2017. Visual acuity of the honey bee retina and the limits for feature detection. Scientific Reports 7:45972.

Shipman M. 2011. What do bees see? And how do we know? NC State University.