Do Bees Have Lungs? How Do They Breathe?

A honey bee on a flower and an illustration of human lungs

Mammals rely on lungs for breathing, but do insects like bees have the same organ? We look at their respiratory system and whether bees use lungs or another piece of anatomy to breathe.

Does a bee have lungs?

Bees do not have a set of lungs to breathe. They rely on tracheal sacs throughout their body which assist with oxygen and carbon dioxide transfer.

To absorb fresh air, the bee relaxes its abdomen which causes valves to open spiracles. They comprise ten pairs of holes found in the abdomen, thorax, and sting chamber.

Once fresh air enters the bee, it is distributed through the abdomen, thorax, and head via the tracheal system. The bee discards old air by contracting its abdomen muscles, forcing it from the tracheal sacs. The used air is finally released from the bee through the spiracles.

  • Bees do not have lungs, nostrils, or gills.
  • Air sacs are used to store oxygen.
  • Tube-like organs called tracheae pump air through the bee.
  • Spiracles use valves to regulate airflow in and out of the bee.
  • Unlike mammals, blood is not used to transfer oxygen.

How does a bee breathe?

The bee has a completely different respiratory system compared to humans. While we inhale and exhale air within seconds, a bee’s small body means it takes much longer to process the oxygen.

The following is an overview of how a bee breathes:

  1. A valve in each of a bee’s spiracles opens and vacuums in fresh air.
  2. Once inside the bee, air is transferred through tracheae arms into air sacs.
  3. Air sacs contract, forcing the air through tracheoles and into the bee’s tissue.
  4. As the bee breathes out, carbon dioxide is pumped back through the tracheoles and out the spiracles. During this stage, bees stop receiving additional air until it has the right balance of CO2 and O2.

What features help a bee to breathe?

Over time, bees have evolved to make breathing easier. Here are some of the adaptations to assist the bee with respiring.

  • Spiracle valves help to stop air backflow.
  • Muscles can be contracted as needed to speed up oxidation and enhance respiration.
  • The bee’s respiratory system is enlarged to allow rapid inward airflow and CO2 ventilation.
  • Air can only exit the first set of spiracles.

Do bees breathe like other insects?

Bees breathe similarly to other insects, using spiracles and tracheoles. Larger insects like grasshoppers have more spiracles and must actively pulse their abdominals to breathe. Smaller insects like bees don’t usually have to move muscles.

Although bees and flies are a similar size, the fly can open its pores and wait for the air to float in and out. Its respiration system is a more passive version of the bee’s.

Commonly asked questions

Can bees breathe underwater and in the rain?

Bees can’t breathe underwater but can last longer than humans without oxygen. By closing the valves in their spiracles, water is kept out. This anatomical feature allows them to tap into the oxygen housed in their air sacs. 

A bee can breathe in the rain by shutting its spiracles to keep out water, but it usually avoids this situation. It won’t usually fly in rain as wind and water droplets can damage the delicate wings.

Do bees control their breathing?

Based on the environment, bees can adjust their breathing for maximum efficiency. They pump air through their tracheae during heightened activity for improved oxygen delivery. They can also close the air openings to shut out water and reduce water loss in hot weather.

Bee vs human – how does their breathing compare?

A bee passively allows air to stream into its body as needed. Oxygen works through every part of the bee’s body via the tracheae. Humans breathe oxygen into the lungs and rely on the heart to pump oxygen-carrying blood via a complex system of arteries and veins. 

Do bees breathe through their mouth?

Bees do not use their mouth to consume oxygen. Instead, they use a series of spiracles on their body to take in and expel air.

Can bees suffocate?

Bees can die from suffocation, and pesticides are the most common reason this occurs. These chemicals cause the bee to close off the air vents responsible for oxygen intake and carbon dioxide emission.

Did you know? Tracheal mites can reduce a honey bee’s ability to breathe.

How do bees get oxygen inside their hives?

Bees get airflow inside their hives through a process called ventilation. It is essential for maintaining air circulation and controlling the temperature and humidity levels within the hive. Worker bees use their wings to create air currents, fanning fresh air into the hive and expelling stale air.

Can bees survive in high altitudes with lower oxygen levels?

Some bee species have adapted to low-oxygen environments, including high altitudes. They have efficient respiratory systems that allow them to tolerate lower oxygen levels.

Related research

We summarized the research for quick reading, which looks at worker bee respiration at different ages and temperatures.

M. Delia Allen; Respiration Rates of Worker Honeybees of Different Ages and At Different Temperatures. J Exp Biol 1 March 1959; 36 (1): 92–101.

It is suggested that the first peak in the respiration rate of the older bees occurred at the lowest temperature at which free movements were possible. It indicated an increased body temperature maintained by the bees to combat the effects of the low environmental temperature.

It is difficult to define the optimum temperature for adult bees. Still, at 32° C., the workers carry out many normal activities under natural conditions. At this temperature, the respiration rates correspond to the rates occurring in the brood area of the hive.

Research suggests that the cause is bees exert temperature regulation by which the metabolic processes are sped up when the environmental temperature is too low. The insects are in danger of being rendered inactive.

The results indicates that the movements decreased in vigor when the optimal temperatures were reached since the oxygen consumption at these temperatures was lower than previously.

In contrast, if the same degree of activity had been maintained throughout, oxygen consumption should rise with increasing temperature.

There is evidence to show behavioral changes at different ages coincide with changes in metabolic rates.

An appreciable difference has been demonstrated between the rates of oxygen uptake of young bees and bees of foraging age. This could have been due to a greater degree of movement by the older bees. However, the same difference was found at 7° C. when all ages were presumably stationary. This indicates that more basic causes were responsible.

Read the research here>

Summing up

Unlike mammals and spiders, bees do not have lungs as a part of their anatomy. They make use of tracheae, air sacs, and spiracles to breathe. The bee has a more passive respiratory system compared to a human’s that requires a heart to actively pump oxygenated blood through the body.

If you enjoyed learning about the circulatory system of a bee, you may want to check out the anatomy of a bee or how bees fly

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