How Do Bees See? The Essential Guide To Bee Eyesight

Macro photograph of bee eyes

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Bee vision plays a vital role in the insect’s foraging, navigation, and communication. This guide explores bee anatomy and what makes it so unique.

Bees have two large compound eyes that detect different colors and patterns. The three smaller eyes are called ocelli, which process light wavelengths, help bees navigate, and maintain flight stability.

1. Ocelli eyes

Bees have three simple eyes (ocelli) on the bee’s head that look like tiny glass marbles. One central and two dorsal ocelli form a triangular pattern.

Bee head labeling the insect's simple eyes (ocelli)
The ocelli have a triangular layout.

These eyes aren’t used for sending visual images to the brain. Instead, they help bees orient themselves towards the sun, tracking light polarization and intensity. They are essential for navigation.

  • The ocellus eye has one lens.
  • They get their name from the Latin word ocellus, meaning “little eye.”
  • Bee species that forage at night (crepuscular bees) have larger, simple eyes to help them work in the dark.  
Extreme magnification of bee ocelli
Closeup shot of a bee’s simple eyes.

2. Compound Eyes

Bees have two large compound eyes located on the sides of their head. Each has thousands of hexagonal lenses (facets) that fit together like a tiled floor.

Compound eyes are much more complex than simple eyes. They send light to the retina, which sends images to the bee’s brain.

Zoomed up image of compound bee eyes
Bees have two large compound eyes.

Humans are limited to one lens in each eye for viewing the world. Bees send a snapshot from each individual facet, which the brain pieces together into a single image.

  • Each compound eye detects colors and patterns.
  • Their focal distance is short, making far-off objects blurry.
  • Male drones have much bigger compound eyes to assist with spotting queens during mating.

Watch the video

If you prefer to watch, then check out our video about bee vision.

What are the strengths of bee eyes?

A bee’s eyes can’t see far-off objects in the same levels of detail as humans. However, they are high-tech equipment that offers the insect several advantages.

1. Ability to view polarized light

Bees can see polarized light that vibrates in a single plane. It helps them navigate, communicate, and find food. Polarized light is created when air molecules scatter sunlight.

A bee detects this pattern using specialized cells in their eyes called ommatidia. These cells are arranged in a hexagonal pattern and contain a series of microvilli that see polarized light.

Bees navigate using the sky’s polarization pattern to determine the sun’s position. They also use polarized light to communicate with other bees by performing a waggle dance that indicates the direction and distance of a food source.

Closeup shot of a bees face including compound eyes and ocelli.
Bees can view polarized light.

2. Highly sensitive motion senses

Bees have high-performance motion senses, allowing them to detect the slightest motion in their field of vision quickly. This feature helps the insect with flight, calculating distance, speed, and trajectory. They establish data about wind flow, working as a team with the antennae, which measure air movement. Source.

While bees see fewer pixels than humans, they process information five times quicker. In the book “The Mind of a Bee” by Lars Chittka, he uses the example of a strip light fed by AC flicker on and off around 60 times per second.

While the human eye can’t perceive this, it is a stroboscopic light environment for bees and many other insects.

3. Seeing a different spectrum of color

Ultraviolet vision plays a critical role in bee foraging. It provides patterns that help the insect decide where to land. They can identify specific zones containing pollen and nectar, making the foraging process much more efficient.

Check out the flowers below: one viewed normally, the other how a bee would see the colors.

Comparison of a flower seen by a human vs. ultraviolet bee vision
Regular vision vs. ultraviolet.

While humans can only see the colors of the rainbow, bees have ultraviolet vision. They see blue and violet clearly, making flowers with these petals a popular nectar source.

Diagram comparing human sight wavelengths to a bee's
While bees can’t see red as humans can, they can see the ultraviolet spectrum.

The wavelengths an eye perceives represent the spectrum of colors it can see.

  • Bees see 300-650nm
  • Humans see 380-700nm

Bees are excellent at distinguishing between light and dark, making them highly effective at seeing edges. It helps them determine shapes, although they’re less proficient at working out the difference between smooth shapes like an ellipse or circle.

Why do bees have hairy eyes?

To the naked eye, it’s hard to see that some bees have hairy compound eyes. But check out the image below of just how hairy they can get.

Closeup shot of hairy bee eyes
Hairy eyes help the bee with flight.

These hairs are extremely useful for keeping pollen out of the foraging insect’s eyes.

Scientists believe that eye hairs play another essential role in helping with navigation. They detect wind direction and strength, working with the antennae to provide useful information to the bee’s brain.

Human vs. bee vision – what’s the difference?

Humans have a single lens in each eye that focuses light onto the retina. Providing a bifocal perspective allows for depth perception.

Bees have compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny individual lenses called ommatidia. Each ommatidium captures a small fragment of the visual field – together, they give bees a mosaic-like, wide-angle view of their environment.

Click the arrow below to get an idea of what bees see:

While humans enjoy the benefit of long and short-range vision, bees can only see objects with clarity when close up. However, these insects view the ultraviolet spectrum with much greater motion sensitivity.

Related reading: Who was Karl Von Frisch?

Do drones or worker bees have the best sight?

Drone bees have better vision than worker bees as they play a crucial role during mating rituals. Drones gather in drone congregation areas, waiting for a queen to arrive. As queens enter the zone, drones attempt to mate with her. Flying through the air and mating requires skill and precise eyesight.

Fast facts

  1. Research demonstrates that bees can recognize faces, differentiating between humans. Source.
  2. Other insects like wasps, dragonflies, and grasshoppers also have three ocelli eyes.
  3. While fly eyes face forward, a bee’s eyes face outwards on the side of the head.
  4. Drones have larger compound eyes with more facets than worker bees. Queen bees have the smallest compound eyes.

Commonly Asked Questions

What colors can bees see?

Bees can see various colors, including ultraviolet (UV) light. They are particularly attracted to blue and purple flowers but cannot see red, which appears black.

What do bees see when they look at humans?

Bees see humans as large, dark objects. They cannot see details but can detect general pixellated outlines, movement, and vibrations.

How far can bees see?

Bees are believed to have good vision when looking at objects close up. They are near-sighted and can’t see as far as humans, but they have a much wider field of vision. While humans have roughly 180-degree vision, bees have an impressive 280 degrees. Their peripheral vision far exceeds ours.

Can bees see in the dark?

Most bee species, including honey bees, have poor sight at night. However, some bees have developed large ocelli eyes to help them see in low light.

Are bees trichromatic?

Bees are trichromatic, meaning they can perceive color through three distinct types of photoreceptor cells. Each is sensitive to a range of wavelengths in the light spectrum.

If you enjoyed this article, also read how can bees fly. You may also like how do bees breathe or how do bees make honey.

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