Bees are common insects. They have wings and use nectar and plant pollen to make the honey and bee bread they eat. The pollen is used as a protein source, and the nectar fuels their energetic lifestyles. All bees have branched hairs covering their bodies that makes them look fuzzy. They come in a variety of sizes from extra small, at about an eighth of an inch, to relatively large at slightly under two inches. Most of us are familiar with the common yellow and black bees. However, they also come in a range of other colors like just black, brown, gray, red, and even metallic green or blue. Bees have many senses, but can bees smell?
Bees – An Overview
People typically associate bees with honey, and honeybees live in colonies. It may surprise you, though, to know that most bees are solitary creatures. When bees do live socially, there are typically three types of bees within a colony:
Each bee has a specific purpose in the hive. The male drones' sole purpose is to mate, which they die soon after. The queen is responsible for keeping the hive healthy by producing enough offspring to support its inhabitants and growth. She does nothing but lay eggs her entire life. A queen may live up to five years, although most live between two and three years. None of the other female bees, or workers, are capable of reproduction. Their lifespans are short, at around six weeks, and each is appointed a specific job within the hive.
Bees breathe through their skin rather than their mouths. They also have a total of five eyes: two compound eyes and three eyes called simple eyes. They see in color, with the exception of red, and their vision, along with other senses, helps them find flowers for pollen and nectar. As aforementioned, pollen is an essential food source for tiny animals. It is so important most bees have specialized hairs on their legs and body for collecting pollen. The all female workforce collects pollen to feed both themselves and the hive’s larval bees.
The constant collection of pollen is what makes bees such a crucial part of plant reproduction. As they forage for pollen, they inadvertently help flowers reproduce by carrying male pollen to the female flower components. The pollen that is lost as they fly from flower to flower is useful to plants because it causes cross-pollination. The symbiotic relationship bees have with plants is beneficial to both the plant and animal. Since plants benefit from bees, they produce pollen and nectar that attracts them. Humans also use bees to intentionally pollinate crops to the tune of ten billion dollars worth of agricultural benefit per year, in the United States alone. Experts estimate that bees pollinate about one-third of all the crops in the world.
Not all species of bees produce honey from flower nectar, though. Those bees have an organ that causes nectar to convert to honey. The honey is usually stored inside the hive. Many animals will raid hives for honey, and even humans keep honeybees for the purpose of harvesting. Beekeepers are more careful than animals, who tend to destroy the hives when collecting honey. They normally calm the bees with smoke and carefully remove part of the bees' excess honey stores.
THEIR SENSES AND HOW THEY USE THEM
Bees seem to navigate well, and always get where they need to go. Can bees hear or see? Can bees smell? The senses bees use for communication, navigation, and foraging are highly sophisticated. Their antennae are tiny but all the same amazing. They contain almost all of a bee’s sensory organs. Outside of their antennae, the tiny hairs covering their bodies help them relate to the world around them. Let's look at the sensory world of bees in more depth:
Bees use their antennae to gauge dimensions in the world around them. A good example of this is when they build their honeycombs. The antennae touch the inside of the comb, from which the bee can gauge the depth and width of the comb. The extreme efficiency of their perception is clear in the nearly perfect uniform comb bees produce.
They also use their antennae’s superior sense of touch for communication. The elaborate dances bees use to communicate, include touching antennae. A touch to the antennae may also prompt a bee to use its tongue to taste, a reaction exploited by beekeepers who sometimes use sprays of sugar water instead of smoke to distract workers.
Each tiny hair that covers a bee’s body has a nerve at its base. The hairs are sensitive to vibration frequencies. If bees feel unusual vibrations, they will become upset and suspect danger. Just as with humans, if a bee's hairs are touched, they will send signals to the bee’s brain alerting it to the fact something has touched it.
Despite the fact that bees create one of the most delicious foods on Earth, their sense of taste is rather rudimentary. Their tongues have taste buds that can discern sweet, sour and bitter, similarly to humans. However, another sense allows them to taste potential food sources before pollen or nectar reaches their tongue. Thus, for bees, taste is not needed to ascertain a good food source.
So the question stands: can bees smell? The answer is yes! In fact, perhaps the most amazing sense a bee posesses is located in its olfactory organ. The organ is in their antennae and capable of detecting odors. To put it simply, bees actually smell through their antennae. A honeybee’s sense of smell is so refined that it can detect scents as it flies. It is so sensitive they can even taste the pollen of a flower without using their tongue. Before they ever reach a food source, they can assess it. This particular ability makes bees experts at locating pollen-rich flowers.
Aside from food, bees use their sense of smell to locate each other. Often when a bee keeper is capturing a wild swarm or moving bees, the queen (sometimes with brood cells) will be captured, caged, and placed in a bee box. With their sense of smell, worker bees will follow their queen’s scent and willingly move to be next to her. In the same vein, there is a common saying that bees can smell fear. Well, they may not smell fear per say, but they can smell another bee's distress. Attack pheromones will alert bees to jump to the defensive when danger is near.
How Well Can Bees Smell?
Now that we know the answer to the question “can bees smell, the next question is often how well can they smell. “The National Institutes of Health conducted a study that was published in the “Genome Research” journal. The study’s findings indicated that honeybees have 170 odor receptors. All of those receptors are located in their antennae. To put the number into perspective, fruit flies only have 62 and mosquitos have only 79. Their sense of smell is 100 times more refined than a human's.
Bees can smell a flower or toxin from at least two miles away. They can even smell illnesses such as cancer. It is believed bees can be used to diagnose cancer in its earliest stages. The belief comes from the fact that bees are capable of identifying the biomarkers of disease rapidly. They are also easily trained, which makes them important in different fields as well.
Similar to dogs, bees respond well to rewards. Training them takes only a few minutes. It is as simple as associating a sugary treat to a certain smell. Bees will detect, or fly to, the smell again and again to garner the treat. Testing would be simple. A bee would small a person's breath via custom glass blower with specialized chambers. The bee would wait in the larger chamber while the person blows into the smaller part of the globe. If a bee smells a familiar sent, they will fly toward it.
Trial runs have shown the testing is shockingly accurate thanks to bees' ability to detect the smallest concentration of molecules. Researchers have found that bees are able to detect lung, skin, and pancreatic cancer. In addition to cancer, bees can also help identify the chemical compounds of tuberculosis and diabetes. While the research is still in its early stages and the devices are highly experimental, the technology could be a low-cost way to detect certain illnesses in developing countries.
Conclusion – Can Bees Smell?
Bees are amazing creatures whose future extends far past pollination and honey production. Medically, it is possible that there will one day be “bee centers” where bee training, medical research, and a health care center will be used for diagnosing a variety of medical conditions. Can you imagine a world where a bee acts as a biosensor to precisely and accurately detect illnesses?
So to answer the original question of “can bees smell,” the answer is an unequivocal yes. In fact, they are super-smellers. Their use in the production of honey, pollination of crops, use in medical research, and their place within our planet's ecosystem makes them invaluable. For more information on bees, beekeeping, and other bee-related topics, be sure to check out some of our other articles.