Honeybees communicate with one another by dancing, have amazing perception, can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans. Bees use this spectrum, which is dense at the center of flowers, to guide them to their targets. They can recognize human faces. They are nature’s most economical builders. They have personalities. They suffer from insomnia. Their brains defy time. When they change jobs, they change their brain chemistry…A honey bee worker visits more than 2,000 flowers and it will travel as far as one or two miles from the hive to gather good nectar.
Honeybees buzzing from flower to flower signal the beginning of spring. They are revered as a wonder of nature and loathed as a nuisance in equal measure. Scientists breed and study them for their remarkable abilities. Whatever your reaction, there is a lot about these little buzzers that isn’t readily apparent from simple observation in the wild.
1. Undertakers And Bouncers
The workers, take on a variety of roles. When bees die within the colony, workers collect the dead bodies and act like undertakers, removing the corpses from the hive.
- They learn to identify sick bees by smell and promptly remove them from the nest.
- Dead bees are carried outside, away from the honey and larvae. Entire groups of bees spend their days cleaning the hive. And in line with this neat-freak culture, bees do not defecate in their hive—instead they do so in mid-flight.
2. Amazing Perception
Bees have an incredibly developed set of senses to aid in their daily routines.
- The honeybee can perceive the difference between images in one 300th of a second, whereas humans are limited to differences in one 50th of a second. That means that while television images seem fluid to us, a honeybee could differentiate each individual frame.
- Their powers of scent perception are also very finely tuned. Obviously bees are attracted to certain kinds of flowers in order to facilitate pollination. However, this function also serves as identification and as a mating call.
- Each collective of bees has its own unique scent, which hive mates use to identify each other, and when it comes time for a queen to leave the nest and start a new brood, her pheromones attract drones to escort her on her journey.
3. Honeybees communicate with one another by “dancing”
…so as to give the direction and distance of flowers. Honey bees must visit some 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey.
- Honey bees fly about 55,000 miles to bring in enough nectar to make one pound of honey.Honey bees have been producing honey from flowering plants for about 10-20 million years.
- A honey bee flaps its wings about 12,000 times per minute. A honey bee worker visits more than 2,000 flowers on a good day. Honey bees communicate with one another by smell and dances. Bees will travel as far as one or two miles from the hive to gather nectar.
4. Honeybees Can’t See Red
Honeybees have five eyes. You would think that this would enable them to see with a greater level of clarity than other animals, but that isn’t the case—or not exactly.
- Bees have two large eyes on the sides of their heads and three additional, simpler eyes in the center of their heads to help with flight navigation. However, bees see very few colors.
- Experts are not entirely in agreement as to which colors are perceived but the consensus is that these lie mostly within the blue-green color spectrum with some oranges and yellows. This is the light spectrum of 300–650 nanometers—humans see the wavelengths of 400–800 nanometers—and excludes the color red entirely.
- Bees probably see red as black. The incredibly adaptive feature that helps bees make up for this smaller range? They can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans. Bees use this spectrum, which is dense at the center of flowers, to guide them to their targets. If deprived of ultraviolet light frequencies, bees lose all interest in foraging unless forced to by hunger.
5 THEY CAN RECOGNIZE HUMAN FACES
If you’ve ever felt as if a bee was targeting you, chasing you specifically, chances are you were right—honeybees have been shown to recognize individual faces. Even more interestingly, they use the same methods humans do to accomplish this.
- Bees recognize groups of lines and shapes as a pattern, in a process known as configural processing.
- They can also remember this pattern for later—when provided a food source associated with pictures of faces and bowls of water associated with non-facial elements, biologists witnessed the insects learning to find the faces with a high level of accuracy.
6. Visual Learning
One might think that since the only purpose of the worker bee is to make honey, it would be an inborn trait. Not so. Honeybees have no idea how to make honey when they are born.
- They have to be taught by the veteran bees in the wild. Studies have found that bees learn from watching their more experienced contemporaries.
- New bees will watch which flowers the others are flocking to and follow their lead. However, the younger bees must learn quickly, because the older forager bees’ wings are literally wearing out from all that flight time.
- As they age over the few weeks of their life, they are slowly cycled back into hive duty (nursery and security) in order to preserve their wings for emergency use.
7. THEY HAVE VIKING-LIKE SUPERVISION
Bees use the sun as a compass. But when it’s cloudy, there’s a backup—they navigate by polarized light, using special photoreceptors to find the sun’s place in the sky. The Vikings may have used a similar system: On sunny days, they navigated with sundials, but on cloudy days, sunstones—chunks of calcite that act like a Polaroid filter—helped them stay on course.
8. THEY’RE NATURE’S MOST ECONOMICAL BUILDERS
In 36 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro argued that honeycombs were the most practical structures around. Centuries later, Greek mathematician Pappus solidified the “honeycomb conjecture” by making the same claim. Almost 2000 years later, Thomas Hales wrote a 19-page mathematical proof showing that, of all the possible structures, honeycombs use the least amount of wax. And not only are honeycombs the most efficient structures in nature—the walls meet at a precise 120-degree angle, a perfect hexagon.
9. THEY HAVE PERSONALITIES
Even in beehives, there are workers and shirkers. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that not all bees are interchangeable drones. Some bees are thrill-seekers. Others are a bit more timid. A 2011 study even found that agitated honeybees can be pessimistic, showing that, to some extent, bees might have feelings.
10. Math Skills
Anyone who has seen a honeycomb might immediately infer that honeybees are excellent mathematicians.
- In fact, great minds such as Galileo Galilei often mused over the level of efficiency with which these tiny creatures could achieve such exact angles as those found in the hexagonal pattern of honeycombs.
- In fact, it has been found that wild honeycombs are initially round—the shape of the bee’s body—and are then heated during formation, which causes the walls to melt and form the most natural structural shape for their orientation, which is a hexagon.
- Honeybees are natural explorers. Dedicated to the purpose of foraging for food and returning it to the hive, the worker honeybee is an expert at navigation and calculation. An intricate dance performed when returning to the hive alerts other bees to the presence of food. Small variations have been observed in the display to indicate distance, angle of flight relative to the sun, and even how abundant the food source is. A more excited dance indicates large supply levels while a less animated one indicates lower amounts.
It has been a subject of debate for some time whether or not honey bees actually sleep. Many fact sheets on these creatures insist that they do not and that they eventually die of exhaustion. This is both true and untrue.
- In reality, honeybees are more akin to narcoleptics than insomniacs. Researchers have observed short periods of time, 30 seconds on average, when bees become unresponsive, their antennae droop, and their bodies become relaxed.
- Younger bees are typically sporadic in their sleeping habits, while older bees have more regular sleeping habits, even retreating into the cells of their hive for a quick nap.
- These short bursts appear to be all the rest a young honeybee ever gets. Between three to six weeks after taking its first flight, the average honeybee works itself to death, literally falling over from exhaustion.
12. WHEN THEY CHANGE JOBS, THEY CHANGE THEIR BRAIN CHEMISTRY
Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure.
- Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive.
- But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.
- During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death.
13. THEIR BRAINS DEFY TIME
When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn’t just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like a younger person’s.). Scientists at Arizona State University believe the discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia.
14. THEY’RE CHANGING MEDICINE
To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It’s basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Research shows that propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema. Another unusual application for honeybees comes from the field of multiple sclerosis (MS) research. Some MS patients are undergoing a procedure known as apitherapy wherein their damaged nerves are stung by honeybeesto encourage stimulation and growth.
15. THEY ARE DISAPPEARING
Colony collapse disorder has cut through honeybee populations, with some beekeepers reportedly losing up to 90 percent of their stock in recent years. European bee populations are also declining, and so are some species of North American bumblebee. That data is often interpreted to mean that all of the world’s 20,000 bee species are in danger, and that we may be in the midst of a “global pollinator crisis.”