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What Attracts Honeybees To Flowers?

 

When flying about, honeybees’ two most powerful senses are their eyesight and sense of smell.  When at full bloom, flowers’ most attractive features are their beauty to the eyes, as well as their fragrance to the nose.  Is this a coincidence?  No.  Honeybees are designed to find flowers, and flowers are designed to find honeybees.

Did you ever wonder why flowers are almost never the same color as the plant itself?  The flower on any plant needs to stand out, and be as beautiful and fragrant as it can be to attract the bees that it needs for the next generation of plants to survive.

As humans we also appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a perfect flower.  But compared to what a bee experiences, our visual perception of a flower is downright drab.  It is as though we are looking at an old scratched computer screen while the bees are watching a 3D movie in IMAX!  Not only is a bee’s sense of smell keenly more acute than ours, a bee’s eyesight is perfectly optimized for identifying flowers.

You may not know this, but flowers display a richness that largely escapes our range of vision.  Bees see in a different range of frequencies, or spectrum, than humans.  Whereas a human’s eyesight ranges from red to violet on the color spectrum (the colors of the rainbow), the bees’ vision ranges from orange to ultraviolet.  Bees cannot see red, but they can see well into the ultraviolet spectrum.  In the ultraviolet spectrum, many flowers have an iridescent quality, in which they appear to change color or flicker from one color to another.  While we humans fail to see this beauty, the bees identify it immediately.

A bees eye view of the same photo

If humans could see into the ultraviolet spectrum, we would see iridescent colors in a flower, along with patterns on the petals of flowers that seem to almost point the way to the nectar source.  A dandelion, when seen in the UV spectrum, is not completely yellow but has a rich and darker looking center that immediately draws attention.  That center, not coincidentally, is where the nectar lies.

Bees’ vision is also vastly faster than ours, which means that they can identify changes in colors while on the move. In fact, honeybees can actually identify individual flowers while traveling at high speed!  Is it any wonder why scout bees never fail to “stop and smell the flowers” along the way?

Late Summer Robbing: Bees Behaving Badly

There comes a day, usually in mid or late summer, when the flowers dry up and stop producing nectar.  This is a terrible state of affairs for honeybees, because late summer is usually when the average beehive is at its strongest.  The foragers at this time of year have probably never known any conditions in their lifetime other than excellent conditions.  Nothing has prepared them in their short lives to experience so much failure on their foraging flights; coming back empty time and again.  They are miserable and discouraged.  All of sudden, the honey that is stored and tucked away in the colony next door begins to look attractive.

Occasionally, the bees get the notion to forage for honey that is stored inside other colonies.  They fight their way past the guard bees, steal some honey, return to their colony, and signal their success to their fellow workers.  This is called “robbing.”  When robbing starts, things can turn ugly quickly.  The strongest colonies pick on the weakest ones, which can become quickly overrun by the pillaging bees.  The robbers steal all the honey and leave the weak colony to perish.  During the course of all of this, the bees turn frenzied and aggressive – both towards each other as well as to any nearby people.  Stinging increases.

The worst part about robbing, besides the loss of colonies and overall bad behavior, is that disease can spread amidst the pandemonium.  Often there is a reason why a colony may be weak and subject to being robbed:  it is sick.  Having healthy bees fighting with sick bees is a sure way to spread diseases and mites across an entire apiary.  All beekeepers agree:  although beekeepers may not be able to stop robbing completely, they should do everything in their power to keep it from getting started.

Bee Training Flights

If you have been keeping bees for any length of time, you will almost undoubtedly notice certain days, and especially certain times of days, where a whirlwind of activity bursts forth around the colony’s entrance.  Especially on sunny, windless afternoons, you often will find scores of young fuzzy bees, pitter-pattering around the entrance, seemingly flying in aimless circles, back and forth. This excited flight lasts around an hour then dies down and completely stops! What is going on?

You have just paid a visit to baby bee flight training school.

Up until around three weeks of age, young honeybees mainly stay inside the hive, tending to their in-hive tasks, such as cleaning, nursing larva, attending to the queen, etc.  Around three weeks of age, however, young honeybees begin their transition to new roles as foragers.  This transition is not immediate.  First the young bees must learn how to fly and orient themselves so they do not get lost once they leave the hive.  Three week old bees leave the hives in groups, flying in ever expanding arcs back and forth around the front of the hive, learning the look and location of it so they can find their way home at a later time.  These first flights are for orientation only, and not for foraging.

Inexperienced beekeepers sometimes confuse orientation flights with robbing.  The two types of activity look somewhat similar to a novice, but there are key differences.  Robbing bees fly aggressively and are often seen around the lid of the colony, rather than only around the entrance.  Fighting often accompanies robbing.  Orienting bees, on the other hand, have a lightness and playfulness about their flight that is anything but aggressive.  Also, robbing bees are older adults, whereas orienting bees are young, often lighter and fuzzy.

Scientists are unclear why these training flights appear to take place simultaneously, rather than throughout the day.  Why do so many bees decide to practice flying at exactly the same time?  Is it because of the quality of the weather conditions, the time of day, or are these flights somehow coordinated by the hive?  Are there instructors or guides to this process?  This uncertainty only adds to the mysteriousness and beauty of the magical, frenzied training flights.