Bees see in UV

Bee eye

Bees see the world much differently than humans.

It’s not just because they are small but because they see different colors.

On the color scale, humans can see the colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. On one end, there is infrared, which humans can’t see, and on the other end is ultraviolet, which humans can’t see.

Bees can’t see red, although they can detect orange and yellow, but they can see ultraviolet.

Humans and bees are both trichromatic, meaning that we have three photoreceptors in our eyes that make color combinations based on these three colors. Humans base colors on red, blue and green. Bees can’t see red because they don’t have a photoreceptor for it, so they make color combinations off of blue, green and ultraviolet.

Flowers look very different under UV light. When a plant looks like a mass of yellow flowers, a bee will see each flower individually. Not only that, many flowers have indications on the petals that guide bees to where the nectar is.

Comparison of a Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm) flower photographed in visible light (top), ultraviolet (middle), and infrared (bottom).
In visible light the flower is a uniform white colour.
In ultraviolet light a darker area around the mouth of the flower is visible. This may act as a nectar guide, aiding bees (which can see ultraviolet light) to the area of the flower where the nectar and pollen are located.
In infrared light the flower appears a single tone. The leaf of the plant appears brighter in infrared, having around the same brightness as the flower. (Photo by Dave Kennard, via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a flower petal look iridescent? We can’t exactly see all the intricacies in it, but the petal in a UV spectrum comes alive to a bee.

Bees can use odor clues to help them in their search, but they have to be close to a flower to do that. Their superhero vision is incredibly helpful as they fly.

Check out the “What’s Happening in the Hive” series.