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  • Sara Thompson

What do Honeybees See?

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Bees rely on the nectar of flowers to live. Some travel several miles a day to collect nectar to bring back to their hive. But how do bees know where to find flowers? Do they rely on memory, scent, sight, or a bit of everything?

Bees do have some memory of where to find flowers. Tests on bees where they were given sugar water in a specific place would frequently go back to check that same place first when searching for food. This could be one reason bees like to frequent bird feeders, they are aware of the ease of obtaining some quick sustenance for their daily activities. But with flowers blooming at different times of year, bees need to employ other methods to find flowers and nectar. Next, would be scent location. Flowers produce smell to attract pollinators. Bees have odor receptors on their antennae. A bee will have to be in close proximity to the flower, however, to pick up on its odor.

Likely the best means for finding flowers for a bee is sight. Like mammals, bees can see color, just in a different way. Humans can see color wavelengths between 390-750 nm, where bees see wavelengths between 300-650nm. Bees cannot see the color red like we can, but they have the ability to see ultraviolet, where we cannot. Using the same methods for memory, scientists used sugar water to attract bees to certain colors. When the sugar water was removed, the bees would still search for those colors first, before investigating other colors available. If they could not see color, they would not have associated food with certain colors when the sugar water was removed. When viewed under ultraviolet light, flowers take on a different color scheme. Many flowers have UV-absorbing pigments on them that will help them attract bees and other pollinators. These UV-absorbing pigments can create patterns such as a bullseye or landing patterns to show where the nectar is on a plant and show where it is safe to land. Many scientists believe that bees didn’t evolve to see the UV patterns on flowers, but instead flowers evolved to be seen by pollinators, to give themselves better chances to spread their pollen and reproduce.

Campers in last week’s Need for Seeds camp learned about pollinators and how plants attract them and saw images of plants under UV light. They also learned about the difference between coniferous and deciduous plants, dissected some bean sprouts, and even planted some seeds to take home.


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