Bees are incredible little creatures. They are hard workers all year long. Studies have shown that bees are responsible for about 80% of all insect pollination, including that of at least 90 commercially grown crops. They have an estimated work value of over $3 billion in crop pollination in the US alone every year. They also give more to the economy in the UK than tourism gives the royal family. That is a lot of work and a lot of worth. But many wonder exactly how bees see flowers.
They seem to be specially designed for such a task. And their most powerful ally by far, is their sight. They have some of the most amazing visionary abilities in the known world. So much so that scientists have been trying to re-create it, and all of its benefits for years. Most have had very little luck due to the immense complexity of a bee's vision. They do not see things as we do. They see better. So how do they see exactly and use it to their advantage? How do bees see the flowers they are going to?
How Bees See Flowers
So, you're wondering how bees see flowers? A hundred years ago, Karl von Frisch proved that bees can, in fact, see color. Color is seen when light hits an object, and part of that light is reflected. This is probably part of the reason why flowers are so bright in color. They attract notice from the bees. The flowers need to be pollinated to live and survive longer, but also to ensure that their species lives. The color helps to target the area of nectar the bees need to go to. No wonder the leaves are a different color.
But the colors we see are not all that exist in a flower. There is also ultraviolet light. As humans, we can not usually see light or color in this range. Only in rare cases, usually after cataract surgery or a lens injury can one see "near" ultraviolet light. But bees can. As humans, we can typically see in the 700 to 400-nanometer range. Bees, however, see in the 600 to 300 nm range. This means that while they can not see the color red and most shades that are similar, it does allow them to view ultraviolet light, which is found in the 400-300 nm range. We, as humans, may be able to see more colors, but they have a much broader range of color vision.
Nature takes advantage of this. Most flower petals have pigments that absorb ultraviolet light to create patterns that can act as a runway of sorts to the center of the flower where the nectar is. We may not be able to see these patterns with the naked eye, but bees can. It guides them exactly to where they need to go to get the best nectar. Some flowers have bold and bright patterns that practically scream for attention, while others are much more subtle. It is like a secret code for the bees. The more ultraviolet light that is present, the more plentiful the nectar is. This is how bees know exactly where to go, and which flowers to land on to profit the most. When it comes to how bees see flowers, it is actually very different from the way we do. They don't see the same flower color as we do.
We may see a patch of blue flowers, but out of those flowers, the bee only sees a few they want to visit. And the ultraviolet light shows them not only which flowers to go to, but also where on the flower to find the nectar. Ultraviolet light is always bolder and brighter directly where the nectar is at the center. They can fly straight to the center every time without wavering. Without this type of light, the bees wouldn't be able to gather as much pollen or nectar in the same short amount of time. In fact, studies show that without the presence of ultraviolet light, bees will lose interest in foraging and so will enter the hive and not come out until they are forced to due to starvation or food shortages.
Even when it comes to movement, how bees see flowers is much different than the way we do. Color is not the only difference between our vision and theirs. They also see things much faster than we do, faster than anything else in the animal world, in fact. They can see five times faster than we humans can. When we are moving, the things we see sometimes blur together. We may pass a field of flowers as we drive by and recognize that they are yellow flowers, but we don't see each flower. Bees do. How do bees see flowers? Individually.
They have a higher "flicker" threshold. They see each flower and all the colors it holds. They can then read what the colors mean to them-sugar or no sugar. This means bees can also respond better to moving objects than stationary ones. It's why they are so adept at getting out the way in time when we swat at them. They can see it coming and move to bypass it.
This makes sight very easy while flying as well. They can see the depth and in three dimensions, as we can, which helps them to judge distances. They measure how far something is based on how many things they passed to get there. Later they can then relay this information to others in the hive. However, they can get confused on depth and distance in certain circumstances. It is similar to the optical illusions that our own eyes fall for.
Different Kinds Of Eyes
Bees do not just have two eyes as we do. In fact, they have five eyes in total. Three of these are very small and found in the very middle of the top of a bee's head. They are called ocelli These eyes have one lens, like ours, and help the bee stay oriented and judge light intensity. These eyes also gather light and use it to detect the ultraviolet patterns in the best flowers. But they are not the only eyes that can do this.
The other two eyes of a bee are large and very different from ours. They are called compound eyes, meaning they are made up of many lenses called facets. Each facet allows in a tiny part of what the bee is seeing. The brain then converts these signals a picture made of each image similar to a mosaic. Different classes of bees have a different number of facets to allow them to see more or less, depending on their job requirements. For example, worker bees have around 6,900 facets on each eye.
Drone bees, on the other hand, have about 8,600. Each of these facets is connected to tiny tubes that contain a cone of visual cells and pigment cells. Eight of these pigment cells are designed to respond to light. Four respond to yellow/green light, two respond to blue light, one responds to ultraviolet light, and one responds to polarized light. We can't see this type of light either, and few of us even know what it is.
Polarized light moves in one direction. When air molecules from the atmosphere scatter photons to create a highway of polarized light. Bees can detect this light movement in patterns and they use it like GPS. It is what guides them to and from home every day. However, they don't need the sun to do this. Even when it's dark and gray, they can still detect this polarized light and follow it where they need to go. And since ultraviolet light can penetrate even the darkest clouds, they can still see ultraviolet patterns without the sun's rays as well.
From how bees see flowers, to how they unknowingly keep our ecosystem alive, bees are truly incredible. A bee's vision is truly extraordinary. It guides them where they need to go no matter how far away from home they are or what the weather is like. It also allows them to see colors and lights that we can only imagine. This, in turn, helps to feed the entire colony by finding exactly where to get nectar and pollen and where to get the best as well. While they do so unintentionally, they are also pollinating the world's plants while they are at it. Scientists around the world agree they are what is called a keystone species in just about every region of the globe.
This means that without them, entire ecosystems would die off and cease to exist. Plants, animals, and wildlife would all be gone. What does that say about how important they are to the world? What does it say about how important they are to us? Without their presence, we would have a lot less of a variety of food to eat as well as a lot less food in general.
The Midwest of America would become a desert wasteland without the bees to pollinate our crops and plants. So the next time you see a flower stop to think about the bees. They are masters at navigation as well as the ultimate pollinators, being able to do so with more accuracy than we can imagine. All thanks to their sight and how bees see flowers.