What Do A Bee’s Antennae Do?

A closeup of a bee using its antennae

For a small insect, the honey bee packs some high-tech equipment. Its antennae are the two wavy, long sensory organs found on the bee’s head. They are incredibly powerful, making it possible for bees to carry out their many everyday activities. In this guide, we’ll look at what bee antennae do and how they function.

What are bee antennae used for?

Bee antennae have a wide range of uses including smelling, tasting, and hearing. They also assist the honey bee with useful data on wind speed and detect carbon dioxide and humidity levels.

1. Nectar foraging

Watching a bee collect nectar and pollen, you could be excused for thinking they are randomly visiting all flowers. But forager bees use the scent receptors in their antennae to find flowers that contain high levels of sugar content. The sweeter the nectar, the healthier and more nutritious the honey.

Honey bees can smell sweetness levels mid-flight using their odor receptors. Having two antennae allows the bee to detect two different nectar sources and decide which is the best to visit.

2. Detecting dead bodies

Usually, a bee knows when it’s going to die and it will fly roughly 100 meters from the hive to pass away. Others will die out foraging. But occasionally a bee will die inside the hive, which can spread infection and disease. Finding corpses in a swarm of 80,000 bees would be nearly impossible if it wasn’t for undertaker bees. Using their antennae, they detect a different scent coming from dead bees and remove them from the hive.

3. Mating

Drone bees have longer antennae with roughly 300,000 chemoreceptors. That’s about 100 times more than female honey bees possess. They are used during mating season to help the drone sense a queen’s pheromones in mid-flight.

4. Colony management

All bees in the colony can detect a queen’s unique pheromone. It is used to control the colony’s behavior. As an example, if a hive is lacking foragers, then the queen bee will release pheromones instructing nursing bees to assist. This communication would not be possible without the bee’s antennae.

5. Protection

Guards will use their antenna to smell bees attempting to enter the hive. They’ll soon know if the bee is part of the colony or an intruder that needs to be stopped.

Honey bees also release a chemical when they sting an enemy. This raises a warning signal for the rest of the colony which they detect through their antennae.

6. Touch communication

Honey bees have excellent eyesight and can see the ultraviolet spectrum, but it’s ineffective within a dark hive. The best way to communicate in the dark is by performing a bee dance and using the sensitive hairs on their antennae to convey the message. Information like where to build honeycomb and the location of a flower patch that’s loaded with nectar can be relayed using this method.

The antennae also come in handy during honey making. As the worker bees pass the nectar between each other from mouth to mouth, accuracy is essential. Using tactile sensors align with each other is simpler with the help of their antennae.

7. Honeycomb building

If you’ve ever seen the hexagonal cells that make up honeycomb you may have wondered how they are so perfect. Each cell is incredibly precise and achieving such perfection could only be possible with the honey bee’s antennae. They are capable of detecting the shape, depth, and thickness of honeycomb cells.

8. Data monitoring

The antennae are constantly checking a range of data sources. A sudden increase in carbon dioxide levels could mean a predator is breathing nearby and may be a threat.

Although bees don’t have ears they can still hear through their antennae. Sounds like wind and vibrations can easily be detected. They can also perceive how fast other bees are flying based on these sounds.

A closeup of a bee with antennae
The bee uses its antennae for many tasks around the hive.

The anatomy of honey bee antennae

Bee antennae are designed to collect information. At the base of each antenna are four muscles, used to control movement. They are made up of three main parts:

Scape: This is the largest section of the antenna which uses sockets to attach to the bee’s head.

Pedicel: Is attached to the scape and is the middle section of the antenna. It allows movement in different directions.

Flagellum: This section is attached to the pedicel and is made up of 10 small sections on the worker and 11 longer sections on the drone.

If you enjoy learning about how a honey bee works, check out our guide to the anatomy of a honey bee.

Did you know? Bees that live in dense colonies are called eusocial bees. Their antennae are packed with functionality to help them communicate with other members of the colony. This differs from solitary bees, who have simpler antennae because they don’t need to communicate as much.

Commonly asked questions

Why do bees pull their antennae?

A bee will pull each antenna through the bristles to clean off any unwanted dust and pollen. Each antenna will lose some of its functionality without regular cleaning.

Do honey bees smell with their antennae?

Bees have 170 odor receptors in their antennae, which means they are very good at smelling a wide range of sources.

How do bees clean their antennae?

Bees have a comb-like apparatus called a strigilis, which is attached to their forelegs. Each antenna is pulled through this groomer to keep it clean.

Fast facts about bee antennae

  • As a honeybee sleeps, each antenna will droop forward.
  • Bees can taste and detect scents and sound with their antennae.
  • Within the same species, the female’s antennae will be shorter than the males.
  • Although honey bees have a tongue for tasting, the end of their antennae has more sensitive taste receptors.
  • Eucera bees are also known as longhorned bees and are known for having antennae longer than their bodies.
  • In some species, the antenna plays a role in courtship, with the male stroking it in front of the female to attract attention.

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