Antennas are fascinating devices that receive signals from other places so that those signals can be converted into useful information. In our daily digital lives, we use antennas that pick up Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals in our electronic devices and computers. In addition, we use TV and radio antennas to receive signals that are converted into sound and pictures.
When considering antennae in living creatures, aliens and insects are the first things that come to mind. Insects are very alien looking and may have been the model for how we imagine aliens!
Antennae exist for insects to serve a central purpose—to sense the world. Just like how humans have five senses, antennae exist to help insects touch, smell, taste, and, in some cases, hear what’s going on in the world around them. Antennae can pick up outside stimuli like air motion, heat, and sound. They’re often referred to as “feelers.”
For honeybees, antennae are arguably one of the most important sensory organs on their bodies. Honeybees have antennae to help them navigate the world—to find and taste food, find mates, sense direction, and sense danger. For us, it would be like having our noses and ears on our fingertips. Through their antennae, honeybees are able to communicate with other bees in the colony and assess their environment, which is essential to their survival and well-being.
If we were to compare honeybee antennae to human anatomy, the antennae would be a combination of our hands, nose, tongue, and ears all in one! Although bees can’t hear as we do, their antennae are useful for picking up sound vibrations around them. Studies have proven that bees are able to detect sound despite not having the same ears as humans. Some scientists even go as far as to say that antennae provide a magical sensory system since antennae can detect things that humans often aren’t very distinctly aware of, such as electric fields, humidity, chemicals, gravity, temperature, and wind speed.
Just like the worker and drone bees, queen bees also have antennae to help them sense what’s going on in the world around them. Like other bees, the queen bee uses her antennae to communicate with other bees and receive input from the environment around her. Queens, in particular, need to know the status of each honeycomb cell since honeycomb cells are where she deposits her eggs. Beekeepers often can spot queen bees investigating honeycomb with her antennae, likely determining the availability of an individual cell to receive a fresh egg.