Bees are specialized pollinators with adaptations made for this precise purpose. Their eyes are a great example of this, as all five eyes have unique functions to help them navigate flowers efficiently.
Bees have two different sets of eyes that aid in flower pollination. The two large eyes, called the compound eyes, are made for quickly detecting flowers, patterns, and polarized light.
The three smaller eyes on the top of their head are the simple eyes or ocelli. These eyes allow them to navigate their environment using the light from the sun and the earth’s magnetic field.
Using both sets of eyes allowed bees to evolve into super-pollinators, able to quickly navigate up to 5 miles away from their hive, communicate the location of nectar to others, and visit up to 1,500 flowers a day.
Read on to learn more about how many eyes a bee has and what makes these eyes so unique.
- How Many Eyes Does a Bee Have?
- How Does Bee Vision Compare to Humans?
- Do Bees Have Night Vision?
How Many Eyes Does a Bee Have?
While most insects only have two eyes, bees have two types of eyes: two large compound eyes and three simple (ocelli) eyes.
Compound eyes are the easily-identifiable eyes on a bee. These two large eyes are located on each side of a bee’s head and contain thousands of tiny lenses called facets. Worker bees have around 5,000 lenses in each eye, while drones have approximately 10,000 lenses in each eye. Scientists currently believe that drones have 2x lenses to help them locate a queen as they fly.
Combining these lenses creates a mosaic of images, which the brain then translates into a complete picture.
The compound eyes perform many functions, including:
- Helping the bee detect color and patterns
- Helping the bee detect movements
- Allowing them to use polarized light
- Allowing them to see what is in the immediate environment
Simple Eyes, or Ocelli
The ocelli are much harder to identify on a bee. However, if you look closely, you will find the three small, simple eyes on the top of a bee’s head in a triangular pattern. These eyes are very different from the compound eyes as they each only have one lens.
However, the three simple eyes, or ocelli, perform essential functions for the bee. Instead of perceiving images as the compound eyes do, these eyes help with orientation and navigation. More specifically, ocellus is for:
- Orienting bees towards the sun. As you will read further down in the article, bees primarily navigate using light and the sun’s position in the sky. These three eyes are located on the top of the bee’s head to act as a navigation system in response to light and the sun’s position.
- Evaluating the magnitude of light around them. Instead of flying during the day, some bees fly at early dawn and late dusk as an adaptive response to competition and predation. These bees have larger ocelli so that they can process more light and can see better.
- Maintain stability while navigating.
How Does Bee Vision Compare to Humans?
Bee’s vision is wildly different from humans’. As they are designed mainly to find nectar, bees’ eyes can outperform humans’ eyes in several ways.
Bees Can See Ultraviolet Light
While humans can see the range from red to purple in the visible wavelength, bees can instead see orange to ultraviolet. Because red is outside of this range, the color instead appears black to them.
The ability to see ultraviolet colors allows bees to identify unique patterns on flower petals. While invisible to humans, the patterns appear brightly to bees and act as visual guides to the nectar in a flower.
Bees Can See Polarized Light
As light wavelengths come from the sun, they scatter in all directions. On the other hand, polarized light consists of light waves that move at only one angle. While most animals can’t see this light, bees can. Through their ocelli, bees use this type of light as a guide for foraging.
In addition, bees can communicate the location of a food source to other hive members through polarized light. The forager or scout bee will come back to the hive once they find a good food source. Once back at the hive, they will do a dance that tells the others how to get to the food source using polarized light as a guide.
Bees Can See in 3D
It may come as a shock to learn that not all animals and insects see 3-dimensions. Bees, however, can successfully detect distances. In fact, they can detect distances so well that they can later communicate those distances with other bees in the hive. Further down, we’ll discuss how their distance vision differs from humans and other animals.
Bees Can Differentiate Flowers at High Speeds
Bees also have an insane motion-sensing ability. While flying, bees can identify quick movements as fast as 1/300th of a second. In comparison, humans can see motion at 1/50th of a second. While experts aren’t sure of the exact use of this function, they believe that it’s to identify flowers ready for pollination.
Bees Can See Magnetic Fields
Although bees much prefer to navigate in bright, sunny conditions, they can traverse in cloudy conditions. Using iron granules in their abdomen as magnetoreceptors, bees navigate via the earth’s magnetic field.
Bees are Nearsighted
Because bees don’t necessarily need to see items as far away as we do, their visual acuity isn’t as good. However, it isn’t as simple as that. Instead of being “near” or “far” sighted, bees don’t possess any focusing mechanism. Instead, they use their ocellus and light to navigate through distances.
Bees Have Hair on Their Eyes
Unlike humans, bees have a dense layer of hair on their eyes. Although fuzzy eyes might sound odd or even gross, these hairs perform very specialized functions for the bees.
First off, scientists believe that hair helps bees steer in windy weather. Because a bee only weighs an average of 3 grams (0.007 lb), they are easily pushed in the wind. The nerve extensions within the hair strand can sense the smallest wind force, allowing the brain to move the bee in the opposite direction.
In addition, the hair prevents pollen from covering the bee’s eyes. Because a pollen-covered eye cannot see as well, the eye needs to be as clear as possible. The adaptation of hair on the eyes allows the bee to transfer the pollen from the eye to the hind legs without coming into direct contact with the eye itself. In turn, this allows the bee to see and collect more pollen.
Do Bees Have Night Vision?
It may be thought that bees have night vision with their exceptional eyesight. However, for the most part, they do not.
Since bees use light for so much of their navigation, many of them will not fly during the night. Plus, since forager bees work so hard during the day, they often don’t have the energy to fly at night.
However, some bees have adapted explicitly to foraging at night. Especially in tropical and desert areas where many flowers bloom at night, native bees have adapted the following techniques for flying at night:
- Larger simple eyes to allow more light to come in.
- Larger compound eyes to process more of what they see.
- More facets to allow more light into the eye.
In addition to bees having more specialized flowers to pick from, nocturnal bees also have less competition over blooming flowers. Although they can’t see much, they can see enough to forage from flower to flower and safely make it back to the hive.
While most bees aren’t nocturnal, some take advantage of the moon phase to forage at night. When the moon is full and there is light outside, some bees will choose to take the opportunity to forage.
Similar to other insects, bee vision is very different from human vision. However, bee vision is even different from other insects. Bees are unique in that they have two sets of eyes, for a total of five eyes.
The two compound eyes detect color and movement and process images. These eyes allow the bee to see ultraviolet light and detect movement far better than humans.
The other three eyes are for light navigation and censoring. These eyes, called the simple eyes or ocelli, allow the bee to use polarized light and the magnetic field as a GPS.
Bees are also unique because they have hair on their eyes, can communicate distance through dance, and don’t have vision sight.
These particular adaptations give bees a unique advantage in seeing pollen and predators quickly and up close. Without them, they wouldn’t be nearly as good pollinators as they are.