What Colors Do Bees See (and painting bee hives)

Yellow bee boxes being painted at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Yellow: Brookfield Farm’s 2012 color

Good weather broke out, finally, in July.  This is news at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey here in Maple Falls Washington.  The month of June gave us 5 days of sun, 5 days of overcast, and all the rest was rain.  So when the sun started shining on July 4 (after 2 inches of rain on July 3) it was actually a cause for celebration – and the sign that I could return to painting bee boxes, tops, and bottom screens.

But that’s a bit dull to read about. Some musings, and studies, on what colors bee see would be a bit more interesting.

Honeybees Do Not See The Same Colors We Do

Bees get to see in the ultraviolet world.  We can use photographic techniques to mimic that world, but all resulting colors are approximations of what a bee MIGHT see.  (More photos by scientist-cameraman Bjorn Roslett can be found at his web site NaturFotograf.com  (click on Infrared in the left side menu

We can never see colors the way bees see them.

  • Bees see “primary colors” as blue, green and ultraviolet
  • They can distinguish yellow, orange, blue-green, violet, purple, as combinations of their three primary colors.
  • Humans see “primary colors” as red, blue, and green
  • We can distinguish about 60 other colors as combinations of our three primary colors.

Bear in mind that not all the studies agree on the exact colors or preferences bees see, but they all agree red is black

Some studies propose that honeybees see orange, yellow, and green as one color (green in that group surprised me).   Blue, violet and purple are seen as a second color.

Ultraviolet being their third color.

Honeybees Do Not See Red

It’s not that they don’t get angry (as in “to see red”), but honeybees see the color red as black.

Honeybees Versus Humans : A Breakdown

(Courtesy of West Mountain Apiary, where a very good write-up about color can be found)

Humans Honeybees
Red Black
Yellow Yellow-Green
Orange Yellow – Green (darker perhaps than yellow)
Green Green
Blue Blue plus Ultraviolet blue
Violet Blue plus Ultraviolet
Purple Blue
White Blue-Green
Black Black

Their Favorite Colors?

Their favorites are said by some to be: purple, then violet, then blue (which all look different to them).   I could not find the study that came to this conclusion, but I like it, as my favorite colors are purple, violet, and then blue.

How Do We Know All This?

We don’t know it all; studies vary.  However:

Bee’s color sense was partially demonstrated by Karl von Frisch.  In 1915, he showed that bees could discern green, yellow, orange, blue, violet, and purple.  He did this by using colored cards and bee feed.  He imprinted the bees with the idea that feed could be found on a blue card, but not the other colors.  When he removed the feed, the bees still went to the blue card.  He then tried this with green, yellow, orange, violet, purple and red.  The only color it did NOT work with was red.

In 1927, Professor A. Kuhn took the study of honeybees’ color sense further.  He tested bees using the visible spectrum for humans, but also used longer and shorter wavelengths : the ultraviolet and infrared.  The infrared was black to the bees, but ultraviolet was a color.

You CAN Try This At Home

A very nice PowerPoint presentation at this Link from the University of Nebraska, will walk you though an experiment on which colors in our visible spectrum honeybees can see.  Sorry, there’s no test for ultraviolet.

Back To Painting Bee Gear

Beekeeper Bean talks to other beekeepers in her bee yard. Photo by Lisa Phillips, Round Tuit Farms

Colors : Good for the bees and they make me happy (Photo by Lisa Phillips, Round Tuit Farms)

As you can see over time I have used purple (ok blue to them, but I like purple), yellow, orange, blue and green.  It turns out this is helpful to the bees as it distinguishes their hive from the others in the yard.  I did it because I thought the bee yards looked prettier with all the colors and red has never been a particular favorite of mine.

Orange and Green bee hive tops drying at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

bee hive tops drying

My most current bee hive top color choices of mariposa lily orange and forest green (the husband says it’s British Racing Green) came from long, diligent thought (kind of). The green was in the hayloft, left over painting trim on my house.  The orange was was last year’s color, and I had a bit left.  That paint ran out before I was done with the tops and the Stockton’s Paints, my favorite paint store is an hours drive away (one way).

That’s my one tip on painting: if you are going to take the time to paint your bee gear, use good quality paint.  Primer and two coats of color, just like a house.  I’ve bee gear that I painted over a decade ago and it is still just fine, even in our 8 month rains.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.  It’s still bright and sunny, so I’m back to painting bee boxes…

What colors have you chosen for your hives?  Why did you make those choices?  I think the colors in a bee yard are one of the fun parts of beekeeping.

About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
This entry was posted in 1 Beekeeping, 6 Honeybees -interesting stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to What Colors Do Bees See (and painting bee hives)

  1. Gary says:


    What a great post indeed.

    We tend to paint our hives, light colours and use whatever we have left over. The hives we make are natural wood painted with linseed oil. We wonder if the bees can see the different grain patterns on their hives?

    Our last painted batch were all military grey, which was a mixture of a few paint tins we found under a house. I love your coloured hives, we must look at getting more colour in our apiary.

    Thanks again, love your blog.


  2. dave hunter says:

    Hello from a sister Bee-Keeper company, though solitary vs. social. If you were to speculate on what equipment would be necessary to create artificial sun that would be “natural” indoors, what would it be? polarized light… but with what equipment.

    • Wow, that one is beyond me. I would guess a full spectrum light (florescent or led) – the “day light” florescents are not full spectrum, they just go off at 5600K…(if I remember from my previous life as a gaffer).

  3. WalesGuest says:

    What color do they see as gray?

    I’ll check this out later again. Don’t notify, your book marked, lol.

  4. Pingback: Borage, Bees and Courage | Flower of Life Kinesiology

  5. Pingback: Flower of Life Kinesiology | Borage, Bees and Courage

  6. Natalie says:

    Great explanation of bee vision! 🙂

  7. Nicholas says:

    Beautiful hives! Just got done painting mine. Also wrote something on my blog about it help others. http://kybeeco.com Happy Beekeeping! ~Nick

  8. Suzanne Alotta says:

    Can you use any knd of outdoor paint to paint hives? The bee catalog we have (live in Italy) has a special paint that is very expensive. I wondered if you need to use a special paint as it seems a lot of people use leftover paint.

    • I use good quality water-based exterior house paint. Primer, then two coats of paint. Nothing special – but good paint because I hate to paint hives and primer & 2 coats lasts. There are interior house paints that are supposed to have less fumes (or something), but as only the outside of the hives are painted, I don’t worry. I am testing a water-based, “eco-friendly” stain this year…as I said I hate painting…http://www.kelleybees.com/Shop/13/Hives-Components/Accessories/4192/Eco-Wood-Treatment I sure hope this works – it rains a lot here. Eco-friendly, cheap to ship (it’s a powder, you just add water), and “once in a life time treatment” – heck, I’d just be happy with the first two, the third would be magic.

  9. Pingback: Poppy Flower and Bee (Red Color and Bees) | artandkitchen

  10. Christina says:

    Hi~I enjoyed your post on bee vision. Reading further about painting hives, I have concern about paint fumes. Are there better seasons or times of the day to paint that would minimize exposure to paint fumes? Better to use exterior vs interior–as far as fumes? Would love to hear from your or any of your readers about your/their experiences—especially “don’ts”. Thank you.

    • Paint fumes for you: do it outside. always use exterior paint. I do a primer and 2 coats (just like a house) Which is always a problem for me here in the Pacific Northwest (it’s only dry outside in the middle of bee season, when there’s not time to paint.) I’ve tried painting in the hayloft on damp days – the paint does not stay on well. I’m going to try “Eco Wood Treatment” non-toxic stain ecowoodtreatment.com — and do it inside, in a well ventilated room, in the winter. Fumes for bees: as one only paints the outside, and nothing inside the hive, I figure the bees are ok, once the paint’s dried. After all, bees move into house walls with no problems (except to home owners). There is dipping in parafin or beeswax (fire hazards scare me during storage). And was it linseed oil? Perhaps another reader could lead the way on these options.

      • Christina says:

        Thank you. My main concern is about painting a hive is fumes that might affect the bees already in it. It would most likely be painted outdoors. I’ve had another question about painting a hive a different color from its original, when the bees first took up residency. I only want to change the color because the deep super is a neon orange (not my choice of colors anyway, but the box was given to me). If I understand you correctly, they would possibly perceive this color as grey or black. If I painted the box a more neutral color, would this confuse the bees? I imagine they would still gravitate to their queen, but would I cause them stress by painting the box a different color? Thanks for your insights.

        • You know, I’ve never contemplated painting a hive with bees in it. I would be more concerned about the bees getting paint on them. But the fumes might make the bees not want to enter their hive. If you can change the bees/frames/brood…to another box, and then repaint the painted box, it would be better I think. Plus one coat of paint over a neon orange would probably just go muddy (my husband painted houses in a former life) Actually neon Orange is just fine for the bees – they apparently see orange (possibly like a dark yellow if I remember my color wheel correctly : red and yellow make orange). It’s red they see as black. I’d live with the color, but then I like neon orange.

  11. Pingback: Hospitalist What Do They Do | My Health

  12. Janet says:

    I would love to read an update on the ecowoodtreatment you were going to use on hive (Sept 2014) Thank you!

    • I really like the stuff – mind you those have only done one mild winter here. I’m going to stick with it — although I’ll miss my pretty colors. It seems to protect the wood as well as the paint, and seems to have no effect on the bees (stains on the outside, not the inside, of course). Plus I can do the staining in the winter, in the basement. My one warning: I put it in a brand new paint can that was made for water based paints. Seemed a good idea at the time – bad idea. The water was too much for the can, it leaked, and I now have a lovely stain on my concrete floor (a very pretty color, but not quite the thing I want). I’ll do the next batch in a plastic bucket — oh where would a beekeeper find one of those, eh?

  13. Debbie says:

    Human primary colors are not red, blue and green. They are red, blue and yellow.

    • You are absolutely correct. Caught me in a left-over from a former “life” – film is red, blue, green (RGB), but indeed we see red, blue, yellow – and the bees see quite differently

      • MelStL says:

        Actually, the Blue-Red-Yellow Newtonian prism model predates modern science. We still use it to mix paint, so most artists refer to it. But, when discussing light, the additive color primaries of red, green, and blue, which correspond to the color receptor rods in our eyes, are correct. (Additive: when you mix all three colors together you get pure white and the absence of all three colors of light results in true black.) This would be the appropriate context to compare human and bee vision.

        The intersections of each of two additive color primaries produces magenta, yellow, and cyan, respectively, which are the three subtractive color primaries we now use for pigment. (Subtractive: When you mix them all together you get near black, and the absence of them results in white.) These color primaries correspond to the wavelengths of the visible spectrum that the pigment absorbs and reflects.

        Think about graphics you might create on your computer. When creating something to be seen with light, such as a website or film, we use the RGB model. When producing things to be seen in print, it is best to use the CMYK model (with K representing true black).

        • That’s brilliant. Thank you. So we were not totally nuts in the film industry (yes we were, but not about RGB). One of the great things about doing this blog is that I get to learn so much from other people.

  14. Zielle says:

    Great post! Why do bees see red as black?

  15. Teri says:

    I bought a blue bee jacket for
    My hubby, so he had a change, the first time he wore it he was stung throught it. Hed never been stung before, anyone got any ideas?

    • It’s said that bees don’t like dark colors, but that could just be an old beekeeper’s tale. Interesting that he got stung though the suit (the little darlings sometimes crawl inside with me — hole? what hole?). It could have just been an aggressive hive defender.

  16. Steve says:

    Read somewhere that beekeeper’s should not wear blue clothing in the bee yard. Evidently it makes the bees very aggressive. I haven'[t taken any chances, I am not wearing blue just to find out after reading the post by Teri.

    • Hi again – not wearing blue is a new one on me. There’s a place in the UK that sells blue bee suits. But they would see blue. Of course they see white too. Do they see white and dark mud stains – yes they do, it’s the color of my bee suit – it’s wet here. I’ve been told not to wear black, they don’t like that. In my experience, they don’t give a toss about the color you are wearing. It could actually be helpful when releasing queens to have a blue (or yellow) suit: queen flies, you stand still, she just might focus on the large blue (or yellow) blob and come back to the hive. My experience is that if they want to sting, they’ll come for your face: they smell your breath, I think. After all, if you’ve only got a small sting, and the thing attacking you has a thick coat and fat (think bear) the one place you can make an impact is on the nose… Just smoke lightly, go gently, makes for calmer bees, but you knew that.

  17. Steve says:

    Forgot to ask a question. So what colors should we be painting our hives so the bees can easily find them? I was planning on using the queen marking colors so I would know how old my hives and components are. Think that would work?

    • To my understanding, they see yellow, blue, orange, white lots of green hives out and about, but I wonder if that’s hard on a bee. They see red as black, purple as dark blue. I think your idea is interesting, I might substitute orange for the red (I think they see a dark yellow on orange)


    What do you think if I use lavender color and lemon yellow for my hives?

  19. Kim Vigil says:

    Hi, I just started painting my bee hives this year and mixed the paint myself from leftovers. I used lavender for the brood boxes and honey yellow for the supers. Some are baby blue that I got from my neighbor also plain drab white. Our area gets so hot in summer that the top boards needs to stay a lighter color or the bees just bake inside. I may make every hive a different color next year if the bees can distinguish their hive from another another according to it’s color. I love the wide variety of colors you have in your bee yard.Thanks for the article,it was so interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s