1. Bees have five eyes
Bees have 3 small ocelli eyes on the top of their head, which can only detect light. The ocelli eye is a ‘simple’ eye with a single lens, which helps bees navigate during flight.
The two larger eyes are ‘compound eyes’, made up of many tiny lenses the bees use to piece together a wider more detailed image.
Extra Tidbit: Bees also have two stomachs! One to digest food (i.e., honey!) and another they can use to store nectar or water, to carry back to the hive.
2. Bees (waggle) dance like everyone’s watching!
Bees use a specialized figure 8 dance, called a waggle dance, to let other bees know where to find a good source of food or water.
Worker bees will move in the figure 8 pattern at an angle from the vertical of the honeycomb to indicate the direction.
The amount of time they take for a single figure 8 tells the other bees how far away the source is!
3. Honey is used to treat wounds
Ancient civilizations used honey for all sorts of things.
Honey was used for beauty purposes, to treat wounds, and even for offerings found in the tombs of mummies! To this day, medical grade honey is still used.
Clinician researchers Bhavin Visavadia, Jan Honeysett (love that name!) and Martin Danford from the Royal Surrey County Hospital published that Manuka honey dressing is an effective treatment for chronic wound infections. Notably, because honey is a non-antibiotic treatment, it doesn’t suffer from issues with the antibiotic resistant MRSA which have rendered many other treatments ineffective.
Speaking of honey, how is it made? After field bees collect nectar from flowers, they pass it to bees in the hive, who deposit the nectar into wax comb, which will become honeycomb.
One the oldest samples of honey, over 3,000 years old, was tasted by a researcher and reportedly given a sweet review!
Bees in the hive fan the nectar with their wings to evaporate moisture. The nectar is reduced from around 70% water content, to around 18%, where it becomes what we call honey. Once the cell is filled the bees ‘cap off’ the comb with a wax lid!
4. Bees are fermentation experts
Pollen that worker bees collect is also deposited into the comb cells.
Nurse bees mix the pollen with honey and some saliva, and an amazing fermentation process begins.
Yeast bacteria, much like that we use to make bread (or beer!) consumes the nectar and unlocks additional nutrients in the pollen, which has now become “bee bread”!
Because the bee bread is so much more nutritious than pollen alone, the nurse bees use this as a basis to feed all bee larvae. Surprisingly, the future worker bees reproductive systems are all suppressed by this food.
Future queen bees are a special case. Future queens start the same as any other female bee, but are fed exclusively with “royal jelly”, a protein rich secretion from the glands of their caretakers. This royal jelly leads the future queen bees to develop sexually.
5. Zeus was the original “Bee-Man”
Zeus was watched over by bees during his childhood! To protect her child from the wrath of his kingly father Kronos, Zeus’s mother hid her child in a cave filled with bees.
According to researchers L. Cilliers and F.P. Retief at the University of Stellenbosh, as an infant Zeus was fed on honey in the cave of Dicte, by bees and the beautiful Melissa, whose name became the Greek word for ”bee”.
Being fed a steady diet of honey, Zeus grew strong and eventually overthrew his father.
Once he became ruler of the gods, he rewarded the bees for their help by giving them a nice golden color. Another name that Zeus is known by is Melissaios, or Bee-Man.
Extra tidbit: Dionysus originally drank mead, in which honey is an important ingredient. Not Wine! His followers also carried wands that dripped honey. But who was the first beekeeper to the Greeks? Aristiaeus, the son of Apollo and and Cyrene!
6. Worker bees are renaissance ladies
A worker bee will have multiple jobs in her lifetime. She begins her working life as a cell cleaner. 1-2 days later, she graduates to becoming a nurse and caring for larvae.
After half a bee lifetime of career changes ranging from nectar fanner to mortician, her final job will be foraging.
A forager bee works from dawn to dusk collecting nectar and pollen for the hive.
In her final act of service to the hive, if all goes well, she finds a quiet place outside of the hive and dies, alone.
7. Swarms of bees are not angry
If you come across a huge hubbub of bees flying about or bundled tight together, you’ve encountered a swarm!
These are bees which have left their old colony to search for a new home. They’re not angry, in fact, these bees are filled with honey, which makes it harder for them to sting (not that they want to, they’ll die if they do).
Bees are doing everything they can to not get lost, and help their new queen safely find a new home.
Nothing to fear, a swarm of bees is here -- just for a little while. The scout bees in the swarm fly back and forth from the new hive site they’ve discovered, and will help the rest of the swarm find their way to the new home.
8. Bees have individual personalities
Did you know that tests by Iowa State University ecologists Alexander Walton and Amy Toth show that bees have different “personalities”?
They found some bees were more prone to certain tasks that involved interacting with their sisters, while other bees were more fond of individual tasks.
Individual bees that are more willing to take on new roles, like switching between foraging or nest-finding, show signs in their brain similar to humans who enjoy thrill seeking! Bees can also exhibit signs of pessimism.
9. Bees don’t just eat honey
Bees don’t just ‘eat honey’! Healthy bees get nutrition from a variety of plant sources, and baby bees are raised on mashed-up fermented pollen jelly (see bee-bread extract).
Not all nectar and pollen is the same, and in fact, in addition to the problem presented by flowers having a limited flowering season, bees raised in monocultures are less resilient than their biodiversity accessible neighbors.
Have you thought about creating a special habitat for bees?
Plant local native wildflowers. Honey bees can’t see red, but there are more than 4,000 native bees in the USA as well, and all bees need your help.
10. Bees are how plants have sex
Male parts of a flower are called the stamens, and produce pollen grains which are equivalent to animal male sperm.
How does that pollen get to the female part of a flower? Let alone to a flower on a plant hundreds of feet away? You guessed it!
Many flowering plants evolved in tandem with bees, relying on them for pollination.
Yes, bees are literally how flowering plants have sex.
Even more surprisingly, researchers Michael Roswell and Rachael Winfree from Rutgers Unverisity, along with Jonathan Dushoff of McMaster Unversity published that in many native bee species, female bees prefer a different set of flowers than male bees of the same species.
Yes, you heard right, unlike honey bees, where females do almost all of the work, male bees of many other species are useful pollinators! In fact, Ostevic et al in 2010 published that male bumblebees (bombus impatiens) may be more effective pollinators than females!
Bonus: Beehives have a heartbeat
Interested in more bee facts (and puns?) see Kelton’s TEDx talk, or click around to find out more about the grassroots startup that’s reached worldwide and spread the word.
What’s your favorite bee fact? Please share in the comments!