Watching bees fly between plants and flowers during sunny days is a common refrain of warmer months. In fact, for many, bees signals the blooming season and it is a comforting sign that cold weather done for a while.
The presence of bees buzzing about also signals the growing season as the activity of bees helps food crops to grow. However, what is less common is seeing bees moving about during darker hours. It almost seems as if the minute it gets dark outside, the bees disappear. This begs the question: can bees fly at night?
The answer to this question is more complex than acknowledging the physiological capability of bees to move at night. It also deals with the nocturnal habits of bees, or lack thereof. There are reasons bees operate primarily during the daylight hours and understanding those reasons perpetuates knowledge of the contribution bees made to the larger global ecosystem.
Nighttime Habits of Bees
Unlike many insect species, bees do not have active nighttime schedules. Bees operate on a human-like schedule. They are more active during the daytime hours and retreat to the hive at night. They fly back when the sun sets, to ensure that they won't lose their way trying to make it home.
When bees go back to the hive after a busy day of collecting nectar and pollen, they cluster in with their fellow bees and settle down to sleep for the night. This makes for more traffic and competition during the day to get to the nectar and pollen before other bees.
However, this makes more sense since bees can then use the sunlight to see where they are going. Some flowers that bees frequent close in total darkness, limiting the access the bees may have to their nectar. This is less likely to be an issue in the brightness of daylight.
Bees sleep daily, getting between five and eight hours of shut-eye in a 24-hour period. Bee sleep happens primarily at night when the hive calms. However, many bees also catch naps during the day. Bees that don't make it home before the sun sets completely rarely risk flying at night even though they can do so. If there is a closed flower available, this makes for a cozy bed until the sun comes up to provide light in the morning.
Bees depend on sleep to enhance their memory. Because foragers need to remember where they are going the next day, the sleep allows them to rest so that their memories are sharp the next day. Bees that have not had enough sleep won't remember where to go the next day, making it hard to locate any food sources located the day prior.
Can Bees Fly At Night?
Bees can physically fly in the dark. There is nothing about these insects--from a physiological perspective--that prohibits their ability to fly when it is dark. This is the case with any insect. Most animals and insects are less active at night--except for those that are biologically nocturnal--because it is safer and because this is the time at which they generate and conserve energy for the next day.
Also, like any other insect or animal, bees will fly at night they absolutely have to do so. For example, if there is a danger, bees won't sleep through it. If there is a reason that bees must leave or abandon the hive, they will fly at night to do so, particularly if this means that flying protects the queen. Bees leaving the hive collectively characterizes as swarming. It is not a behavior seen at night, but bees will undergo such a journey if it is imperative.
Bees prefer not to fly under the cover of darkness as it becomes that much harder to find their way effectively. However, while bees do not enjoy flying at night, they can do so from a physical perspective.
The reason that bees can fly at night but choose not to is simple: they can easily get lost and become prey for cunning nighttime predators. The more bees that are flying at night away from the hive, the less the numbers of bees there are protecting the hive and ultimately--the queen.
Foragers are more prepared to fly at night than their worker counterparts. Since those out foraging for nectar and pollen come in last, they linger on the fringes of the hive. This means that in a night-time attack, these frequent fliers would be the first line of defense. Those that stay inside the hive much of the time sleep closer to the middle.
Different hives have different sleeping patterns. Some hives are more likely to sleep longer hours or through the night than others. There is no scientific explanation for these differences; it may be as simple as some differences between humans in terms of personality or habit.
There may be hives that have guards that show bees can fly at night as they buzz around just inside the hive or close to the outside.
Light attracts bee during the nighttime hours, but not because other insects and animals may be. Bees don't think of the light as a food source as is what commonly draws out other insects. Rather, bees are constantly seeking heat sources. Thus, during the colder months, bees can fly at night and rarely may do so to glean heat from the light source.
Among the reasons that bees can fly at night, but do so during the day, centers on their daytime activities. Bees have a huge ecological responsibility. Their propensity to pollinate various plants and flowers plays a big role in agricultural success for many human food crops.
Without the bees' daytime schedule, flowers and plants would not bloom and thrive as effectively. The food crops for which bees help to pollinate are diverse and include everything from apples to mangoes.
Bees also work during the daytime hours to create honey, placing it in the honeycombs of the hive to save for winter. Honey is a human food mainstay, so it is important that bees stick to their natural schedules to be productive in creating it.
Honey not only tastes good to humans, but there are also many health benefits related to the consumption of honey--including the fact it is such a poignant antioxidant. Raw honey also contains actual bee pollen, so it has disease-fighting properties.
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Drawbacks Of Flying At Night
While the answer to "Can bees fly at night?" is a resounding yes, the more complex answer is that they can, but they should not do so. While bees may not sleep as many hours at other species in the animal kingdom, these insects rely on the sleep they get. If a bee can fly at night, then this means it is forgoing much-needed sleep to prepare for the next day.
Tired, loopy bees are not themselves, and it shows to the rest of the hive. They may not communicate properly with other foragers, they may not be as productive in gathering pollen or nectar that day, or they may easily forget where they are going and how they plan to get home again.
In this way, bees are very similar to humans. If they don't get enough sleep, they get more confused. Bees can fly at night, but if they are tired, they are more likely to get lost. Thus, many bees won't risk it and will sleep where they are before flying again.
Can bees fly at night if they don't have good night vision? They can, but they don't do it well. This is another reason that bees prefer to get where they are going while the sun is still setting instead of flying in complete darkness.
If they can't see where they are flying, they may inadvertently put themselves in danger. There are plenty of other insects that would love to make a snack out of a wayward bee. If a lone bee runs into a wasp or flies near a wasp nest, the chances of being killed.
Bees On Guard At Night
Bees sleep at night, but there are always members of the hive that stay awake at various points to ensure the safety of the hive. Bees stand ready to defend their queen at all times, so bees can and will fly at night in attack mode to protect the hive. This also speaks to the notion of "can bees fly at night," as it shows that they can but only when they prefer to do so.
Our Final Thoughts
"Can bees fly at night" is a viable question and the short answer is: yes. However, should bees fly at night is a different question, and the answer is a definitive "no." Bees have an inherent understanding of the risks incurred by flying in darkness. While it may offer cover to these small insects, the risk of getting lost or encountering a more dangerous foe is too great. Bees find shelter in places when it gets dark, or do what it takes to get back to the hive before darkness falls completely.