The honey bee, though small in size, is a complex and sophisticated creature. This is an insect perfectly adapted to its environment, enabling it to co-exist with other living things in a delicately balanced give-and-take, evolved over millions of years.
The anatomy of the bee has a stunning efficiency. With honey bee anatomy, every element has a clear, well-defined purpose, to the point of being fine-tuned to reflect the differences in roles between the worker, drone and queen bees.
Let’s take a closer look at the beautiful makeup of the bee.
The body of the honey bee is divided into 3 sections – the head, the thorax and the abdomen. Each section serves its own purpose and supports the functions of the attached body parts.
- The head features eyes, antennae, mandibles and a very functional, yet tiny, brain
- The thorax is the base for the legs and the wings
- The abdomen contains the stinger, wax glands and reproductive organs
Together these form the honeybee’s exoskeleton – an “external skeleton”. This is largely covered in a layer of hair to aid the bee in gathering pollen and regulating body temperature.
The 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 have 13 segments making up each antenna, while females have 12. In both cases, there is an elbow-like “joint” along the antenna.
For touch, the antennae feature mechanoreceptors. The sense of touch is a rather obvious benefit from the antennae 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 in humans, is absent. However, scientists were confused why some studies suggested bees were indeed responding to sound.
Keep in mind that what we consider sound is merely vibration at frequencies we happen to detect with our ears. There is no rule of nature dictating the “vibration detection apparatus”, that we happen to call ears, have to be attached to the side of the head! If a creature has a way to detect vibrations, through any mechanism, it can “hear”.
The machanoreceptors on the bee’s antennae respond to the movement of air particles, at frequencies associated with sound. So, through a different principle to our own ears – and because bees would look somewhat silly with ears – bees are, in fact, able to detect sound!
Antennae also feature odor receptors, though they are not the only part of a bee’s anatomy that can detect odors. In the antennae alone, bees pack a whopping 170 odor receptors, giving them an extremely well-evolved sense of smell.
Bees also use their antennae to communicate with other bees, through touch. Interestingly, honeybees rely primarily on the right antennae to communicate. The favoritism shown toward the right antennae is a mystery to scientists. Studies have been conducted that prove honey bees 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.
Honey bees possess two sets of eyes – compound and simple. The large eyes you observe when looking at a honey bee are compound eyes.
Each compound eye is comprised of many 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 helps with the honey bee’s 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 and process information faster and protects their eyes from the harshness of daylight. Viewing the world through polarization gives bees a form of tunnel vision that guides them to their food source and back to the hive.
The three simple eyes of the honeybee have a single lens, which collects 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 bee’s UV polarized vision is the perfect tool for location of food sources.
The proboscis is another name for the tongue of a bee. It is like the human tongue, in that it is soft and can be extended. Relative to the size of the average honey bee, the proboscis is long, a result of evolution helping the bee to 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 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 to aid in cutting and biting, but worker bee’s mandibles are smoothed to aid in the production of wax.
Of course, hidden from view is the brain. Given its size, the bee brain has an extraordinary capacity 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, used in the creation of wax and royal jelly (a substance made by worker bees to feed larvae).
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.
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 improved by the fast pulsating muscles located in the thorax. Bees have a range of up to 5 miles from their hive, allowing them to expand their area of pollination.
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.
Each leg has claws for gripping and sticky pads to assist the bee in landing on slick surfaces. Bees also have taste receptors on the tips of their legs.
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 to brush, collect, pack and carry pollen and propolis back to the hive.
The pollen basket is located the bee’s hind legs and consists of hairs surrounding a concave structure. As a bee 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.
In queen bees, the abdomen features the spermatheca, which is used to store sperm collected during her mating flights and when laying, as she fertilizes eggs. The ovaries of the queen will mature and begin producing eggs between the age of 1-2 weeks and she will continue to lay eggs until her death.
For the drone, his sexual organ is a “use once” device! 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.
For 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 left to young 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.
Of all components of the anatomy of a bee, the stinger is the one that the layman considers first! The stinger is the honey bee’s only true line of defense. Honey bees will sting only as a last resort when threatened because once they have used their stinger they typically die.
The stinger differs across worker, queen and drone as follows:
- Worker: The stinger is barbed, and once inserted into human skin will be torn away as the bee struggles to free herself. This usually results in the death of the worker.
- Queen. A queen’s stinger has no barb and she can therefore sting repeatedly without losing it. Note, however, that stings by queen bees are quite rare.
- Drone: Nothing to worry about with drones – they have no stinger!
In conclusion, the anatomy of the bee is beautiful and incredibly efficient. The next time you see a honey bee, consider how that tiny body packs so much into such a small space.