The Anatomy of Bees

The honeybee, though small in size, is a complex creature. This is an insect that is perfectly adapted to its environment, enabling it to co-exist with other living things in a delicately balanced give-and-take, that has evolved over millions of years.

The anatomy of the bee has a stunning efficiency. Every element has a clear, well-defined purpose, fine-tuned still further in the differences between worker, drone and queen bees.

Let's a a closer look at the beautiful makeup of the bee.

The body of the honeybee is divided into 3 sections - the head, the thorax and the abdomen. Each section serves its own purpose and supports the functions of the body parts it supports.

The head has eyes, antennae, and mandibles, the thorax (or middle) is the base for the legs and the wings, and the abdomen contains the stinger, wax glands and reproductive organs. Each part makes up the honeybee's exoskeleton, all of which are covered in a stiff fuzz of hair, aiding the bee in gathering pollen and regulates the bee's body temperature.

Head

Antennae

The two antennae on the head of the honey bee form a sensory power house, providing a function for a bee's sense of touch, smell, taste and even a unique form of hearing. Curiously, males usually have 13 segments and females 12. In both case, there is an elbow-like "joint" along the antenna.

Honey bee worker head

For touch, the antennae feature mechanoreceptors. ​The sense of touch is a rather obvious benefit but, to the surprise of scientists, it turns out they also provide the sense of hearing.

For many years, it was felt that bees - despite having an almost magical set of primary senses - were unable to hear. Indeed, the traditional pressure-based ear (such as we have in humans) is absent. However, scientists were confused why some studies suggested bees were indeed responding to sound. On further investigation it was determined that the machanoreceptors were responding to the movement of air particles at frequencies associated with sound. So, though through a different principle, bees are in fact able to detect sound.

Antennae also feature odor receptors (other parts of a bees anatomy can also detect odors). In the antennae alone, bees pack 170 odor receptors, giving them an extremely well-evolved sense of small.​

Bees also use their antennae to communicate with other bees, through touch. Interestingly, honeybees rely solely on the right antennae to communicate. The favoritism shown toward the right antennae is a mystery to scientists. Studies have been done that prove that honeybees do not function as well when forced to use only their left antennae. The proclivity to use their right antennae is akin to a human being right- or left-handed.

Compound Eyes

Honeybees possess two sets of eyes - compound and simple. The large eyes you can see when looking at a honey bee are compound eyes. Each compound eye is built with numerous eye units. These units take in a separate image and transfer the information to the brain where it is pieced together into a single image. This process also lends to the honeybees' ability to see the world in polarized light.

Polarized vision is like looking through a pair of sunglasses. This type of vision allows bees to navigate, process information faster, and protects their eyes from the harshness of daylight. Viewing the world through polarization gives the bees a mutant form of tunnel vision that guides them to their food source and back to the hive.

Simple Eyes

The three simple eyes of the honeybee have a single lens, but it sees in UV light. The UV light allows the bee to see the location of pollen as a dark spot, so they know where to land. In conjunction with their compound eyes, the bees' UV polarized vision is the perfect tool for location of food sources.

Proboscis

The proboscis is another name for the tongue of a bee. It is similar to humans in that it is soft and can be extended. Relative to the size of the average honeybee, the proboscisis long, a result of evolution ensuring the bee can reach the center of a flower to collect nectar. The proboscis is also used to clean their hairs or to groom one another, especially the queen.

Mandibles

Mandibles are the honey bee's incredibly strong jaws that protect the rest of the mouthparts. The mouthparts consist of a tongue and other complicated organs that collect nectar from flowers.

The mandibles of the worker bee differ from the queen and her drones. The queen and drones have pointed mandibles that aid in cutting and biting, but worker bees' mandibles are smoothed to make their production of wax from their mouth an easy task.

Inner Head

Of course, hidden from view is the brain. Given it's size, it has an extraordinary capability to process rich information and make decisions. The brain is made up of a series of lobes.

There are also glands inside of the head that produce secretions from the mouth, which are used in the creation of wax and royal jelly (a substance made by worker bees to feed the queen.)

Thorax

The thorax is the midsection of the honeybee and is primarily focused on locomotion. The thorax features six legs and two pairs of wings. The muscles in the thorax allow the bee to control the movement of the wings during flight. The rapid contractions of the muscles produce the quicksilver movement of the wings.

Wings

The wings of a honey bee can carry the insect through the air at 15 miles per hour. These wings are arranged in two pairs, connected by a row of hooks on the back wing.

The fore wings are much larger than the hind wings but they both help with flight. Lift off happens because a propeller-like twist is given to each wing during the up  and down strokes.

Speed is achieved by the fast pulsating muscles located in the thorax. In fact, the bees have a range of up to 3 miles from their hive, allowing them to expand their area of pollination.

Legs

The honey bee has three pairs of legs which split into six segments, making them very flexible. The front legs are specially designed to clean the antennae while the rear legs have a section devoted to pollen accumulation called a pollen basket (see below).

Each leg has claws for gripping and sticky pads that assist the bee in landing on slick surfaces. Bees also have taste receptors on the tips of their legs. The bee uses its forward-most legs to clean its antennae. and the middle legs help with pollen collection.

The worker bee has a different set of back legs than the other bees in the hive, containing special combs and a pollen press. These are used by to brush, collect, pack, and carry pollen and propolis back to the hive.

Pollen Basket

The pollen basket is located the bees' hind legs and consists of hairs surrounding a concave region. As a bees visits a flower, she grooms herself and brushes pollen sticking to her body toward her hind legs. She then packs the pollen into the pollen basket.

To help keep the pollen together during flight, some nectar is mixed in. Finally, the hairs on the pollen basket hold it all in place.​

Abdomen

Reproductive Organs

Drone Bee Sex Organ

Drone Penis - Michael L Smith

In queen bees, the abdomen features the spermatheca, which is used to store sperm collected during her mating flights and, when laying, used periodically as she fertilizes eggs. The ovaries of the queen will mature and begin producing eggs between the age of 1-2 weeks and will continue to lay eggs until her death.

On the side of the drone, his sexual organ is a "use once" affair. As we will see in our article on reproduction, after the drone mates his sexual organs are ripped from him, causing his death. Another curiosity is that his ejaculation is so explosive that it can be heard by the human ear.

Wax Glands

On worker bees, four pairs of wax-producing scales exist on the underside of the abdomen. These secrete liquefied wax, which harden into thin scales when exposed to air.

The task of creating wax within a hive is one left to younger worker bees. Workers can create around 8 scales in a 12 hour period. Around 1,000 such scales must be created within the colony to make a single gram of wax.

Stinger

Of all components of the anatomy of a bee, the stinger is the one that the layman probably considers first! The stinger is the honey bee's only true line of defense. Honeybees will sting only as a last resort once threatened, because, once they’ve used their stinger they will die. The nature of the stinger differs as follows:

  • Worker: The stinger is barbed, and once it is inserted into a human the stinger will be torn away as the bee struggles to free itself. This usually results in the death of the worker bee.
  • Queen. A queen's stingers are without barbs and she can therefore sting repeatedly without losing her stinger. Note, however, that stings by queen bees are quite rare.
  • Drone: Nothing to worry about with drones - they have no stinger!
Bee stinging