Primed For Action

Bees possess an extraordinary array of capabilities in their tiny frames. Whether raising brood, maintaining the hive, creating honey, foraging or any of the other tasks they undertake, bees have an incredible level of productivity, derived from their beautifully evolved bodies and a rich set of senses. They leverage these to the fullest extent possible, especially in relation to how they communicate.

Communication between bees within and away from the colony takes many forms. Each form is extremely well-developed and finely-tuned for the benefit of the colony. To achieve success, bees have strength in all their senses.

Why is it necessary for bees to communicate?
The success of the hive comes not from the efforts of a single bee but from the joint efforts of tens of thousands of bees, all aligned to towards the same goals.

Bees Sense…

By Smell

We have looked at the majestic power of pheromones within and outside the colony. This invisible but pervasive signal – used for many different purposes – is the oil that keeps the machinery of the colony running smoothly.

While the Queens Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) is perhaps the most well-known and important of the pheromones, even workers use pheromones to signal intent and circumstance.

By Touch

Bees possess a delicate sense of touch throughout their body, but particularly in their antennae. In the dark innards of the hive all senses are important, but touch is essential.

The purposes for which bees use touch are many, but one often under-appreciated reason is to precisely measure the dimensions of cells as they construct them with wax. They also interpret their dances partially through the sense of touch.

Since the antennae are very sensitive, they are regularly cleaned by the bee, with her front legs. This beautiful video illustrates this.

By Sight

Bees have very good eyesight. Having multiple sets of eyes with thousands of lenses tends to do that! The interpretation of the images presented by both compound and simple eyes gives bees a powerful way to interpret the space around her.

Worker Bee

The existence of facets, the individual lenses of the compound eye, present a tiny visual area to the brain, analogous to a pixel on a TV. The brain then unifies this into a single image for interpretation by the bee.

What do bees see?
Bees excel in detecting certain aspects of the light spectrum, such as their ability to see infrared light. Bees see color, polarized light and movement very well, but the interpretation of outlines and forms is not so strong.

By Dance

Witness the curious phenomenon of the wiggle dance. Such is the wonder and delight of this powerful way to communicate, that even the non-beekeeping layman often has awareness of this bee behavior.

This is, by any measure, one of the most efficient forms of communication in the animal world. Through a choreographed dance, bees communicate a surprising amount of information quickly, efficiently and with fine precision.

  • The next meal: The more well-known application of the dance within the colony is to relay information about the direction of foraging resources. However, direction is just one parameter described by the waggle dance. The dance also relays information about distance and value. For example, workers communicate the distance of valuable flowers that might be five miles away and with an accuracy of 15-20 feet.
  • The next home: When swarming occurs, scout bees return to the colony to pass on information about potential resting places for the swarm.

We will use any excuse to feature the wonderful voice and experience of Sir David Attenborough, so we’re fascinated by the delightful explanation of the waggle dance in this video.

By Electrical and Magnetic Fields

Another surprising, yet important, sense bees possess relates to electrical fields.

A bee in flight carries a negative electrical field. These beacons of negative ions fly from flower-to-flower and happen across objects with a positive charge. As it turns out, pollen has a positive charge and – with opposites attracting – a bee landing on a flower and coming close to pollen is a ready-made match.

While bees will go to great lengths to discover and retrieve pollen, the mere act of being in the vicinity will do a lot of the work!

Bees don’t just carry an electrical charge but also the ability to detect charges in the local environment. They can use this to detect pending thunderstorms and have been seen to quickly return to the hive when a thunderstorm announces its imminent arrival through static in the air. While this is a valuable defensive mechanism, electrical fields can also confuse a bee and create havoc with its navigational prowess.

How do bees know where they are in the world?
Bees possess the ability to detect the earth’s magnetic field, an essential tool in their GPS-like navigational skills.

The Complete Package

With these vital senses at their disposal, bees are highly efficient in what they do and how they communicate.

In many cases, they combine the use of these capabilities. An example is the use of a smoker by beekeepers. It is thought that the reason bees react to a waft of smoke (using smell) is that they sense the potential for danger from a fire. They react by emitting the alarm pheromone, which informs the rest of the colony that danger is nearby.

The use of a smoker, to calm our bees, ends up being a false alarm.  But that doesn’t stop bees from reacting quickly, by diving back into the hive to munch on honey, so they are fueled-up for their assumed departure to a new location (since they believe the existing one is just about to burn down!). This is a great example of how bees use their senses, both to react and to effect behavior within the colony.

18 thoughts on “How Bees Sense and React to Their World”

  1. I enjoy all of your articles and learn something from each; for instance, I’ve not previously heard of their negative electrical charge and their ability to sense static charges in the atmosphere. I’m another reader who cannot believe the premise that these incredible insects somehow “evolved”.

  2. I too am amazed at the complexity of honey bee’s communication and their ability to find their way. Of all the videos and articles I’ve seen and read, this is the first article that explains the magnetic charges. Like Jennifer’s comment above, I am curious if an electrical fence affects the hive.

  3. I am a late starter but trying to catch up. All the articles so far have been amazing. I just want to keep learning more and more! Next season I have 2 mentors to watch and learn from. It will be so helpful to know some things in advance. Thank you!!

  4. I’m with Charlene (11/16), do the electrical charges in an electric fence mess w/the bees in any way? Thanks!

  5. Does anyone believe all of this just evolved ,hard to deny a creator with this much complexity.God bless.

    1. No, I think it’s ludicrous and arrogant for us humans to believe that this amazing insect “evolved”. I was just getting ready to mention that in my comments when I saw yours.

  6. These are very helpful articles and a spirited forum. I don’t know the answer to any of the questions but hope someone else does because I’m interested too!

  7. So if electronic fields impact the bees why wouldn’t the electric fence (recommend to keep bears out) negatively impact the hive?

  8. I have been learning so much! I want to help bees in anyway I can! I’m just in awe of hard hard bees work. I hope to get a honey bee hive and a pollinator bee house.

  9. The waggle dance just amazes me. The complexity of what is being communicated with that simple dance should amaze everyone. The natural world is an incredibly place to study and I’m finding learning more about honeybees simply fascinating.

  10. Kristen Armstrong

    I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying this series of articles. (that’s saying a lot for someone who hates to read). They are so informative and FUN to read. I never had an opinion about bees; now I love them. I can’t wait to get a colony. They are such amazing creatures! Thank you for your love of bees and for sharing this wealth of knowledge!

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