The Eyes Have It : Honeybee Eyes

Honeybees have facinating eyes : all five of them.  Two compound eyes on either side of their head, and 3 “extra” eyes on top.  That’s a bit antropromorphic, we humans think of two eyes as being “normal”, but for most in the Hymenoptera order five eyes is pretty normal

All about structure and purpose

Two compound eyes can be seen on either side of  honeybees’ heads.  You must look a lot closer to see the three small eyes, the ocelli, that lie between their antennaes on the top of their head.  This blog post is about the structure of those eyes and the purpose those eyes serve.  A previous blog, What Colors Do Bees See, is about how they see color (and painting bee boxes).


We can all see the large compound eyes on bees, especially on drones.  Each of these compound eyes has 6,900 tiny lenses called facets.  Each of these tiny lenses has its own photosensitive cells. The facets are in groups, each with a special skill : patterns, polarized light, colors, motion.

There are 150 of these groups, called ommatidia, in each eye.  Every ommatidia is connected to the optic nerve, and each one has 46 facets  (by my math).

The images from the thousands of lenses join together in the honeybee’s brain.  Bees have excellent detection of color, polarized light and motion.  But seeing outlines and forms is not a strong point.



Bees’ color perception is different from ours. They can see into the ultraviolet range, but to them, red is black.


Honeybees are far better than we are at detecting motion.  They apparently can detect  a motion that happens in 1/300th of a second. If a movement takes 1/300th of a second, a bee can see the beginning and end of that movement.  We humans would never see it.  For us to register motion a movement must take longer than 1/50th of a second. A field of flowers or the blossoms of a tree may look still to us, but to the bees, those flowers are moving.


Polarized Light

We cannot see polarized light, although many insects can.  This ability allows them to “see” the sun on cloudy, overcast days.  The ability to see polarized light helps the bees navigate.  Check out Plane Polarized Light, for a good webpage on this.  It’s by chemguide : Helping you to understand Chemistry  (I fear I am beyond help in this.)


Also helping in navigation are tiny, sensitive hairs which grow where ever the facets meet.  These hairs are believed to detect wind direction, and allow the bees to stay on course in windy conditions .  When these hairs were removed from bees in a 1965 experiment, the bees could no longer find their feeding sites.

THREE MORE EYES : the simple eyes

Honeybee navigation is further assisted by the three “simple” eyes are located in a triangular pattern between the honeybees’ annentae.

“Simple” here is not just a description, it is a technical term.  Simple eyes are also called ocelli (occellus is  Latin for “little eye” according to Wikipedia).

Each eye has only one lens.   Their only purpose – but a vitally important one – is to allow the bees to use sunlight for navigation.



The five eyes of a honeybee allow it to navigate its foraging area even on the cloudiest days and find its way home again.  They allow each bee to see motion and color far beyond what any human can detect.

All of the above has very little to do with beekeeping.  But I think it’s interesting.  Far more interesting than writing about winter chores in a northwest Washington beeyard: clearing blackberries, cutting shrubs, pulling up fifteen-foot alders, and leveling a small hill to enlarge the farm’s bee yard – all done in damp, subzero temperatures.


Livestock Guard Dog and little dog at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey

The Mangers Check My Work

I admit, I’m pretty proud about leveling the little hill with my 1966 tractor.  In the photo, I put the pups in the middle of the area for scale.  The big puppy (2 years old), is a livestock guard dog , without whom beekeeping would be nearly impossible due to the bears with whom we share our land.  The little one is our “first alert” system.



That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington. Any comments and additional information about the amazing eyes of honeybees would be welcome.  Life : an on-going learning experience for all of us.


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.
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27 Responses to The Eyes Have It : Honeybee Eyes

  1. Emily Heath says:

    I love posts like these, so interesting. I liked the fireweed comparison picture.

  2. It’s a bit scary having those beady little bee eyes trained on you when you are trying to take their honey! Great post!

  3. Pingback: Bee’s Eyes – All Five of Them! « Zen and the Art of Beekeeping

  4. Kitty Hawk says:

    I love honey, but I’ve had fear of honey bees since I was a young teenager when I walked by my great-grandmother’s bee box and a guard bee flew “into” my ear and stung me. It gave me a terrible headache. I did not get over the fear of bees until I had a job in my early 40’s that required me to walk in tall cotton fields to check subterranean water saturation. Bees were flying head level by the thousands gathering nectar and pollen from the cotton flowers. In fear, I backed out of the first field I went into, but realizing my job depended on my going into the field, I entered … slowly. Bees were all around me, even bumping into my face. I quickly realized they had no intention of stinging me. They were only interested in seeing what I had to offer. I had nothing they wanted. From then on, I was able to get around bees with no fear. I enjoy watching them work over my garden.
    The structure of the eyes of bees and their ability to process honey are two great examples of creation trumpeting evolution. Pastor Diehl

    • What a wonderful story – although getting stung in the ear was clearly not wonderful (I do know the feeling). But I think your ability to overcome those fears is brilliant. They are marvelous creatures (except not when they get lost in my somewhat disheveled hair – then they are annoying). Enjoy your garden, what a great time of year for the outdoors.

  5. Pingback: Countdown to Spring - KM026

  6. Great article guys, we mentioned it on our recent podcast in the website link.

    Thanks for posting it, really enjoyed it and it was popular with our readers from facebook.

    See ya…Gary
    P.S. Are you keen to do an interview on the podcast one day?

  7. If I’ve missed the email, please send it again. I’ve been away from the land of the internet for a few weeks and things got lost in the email pile-up.

  8. Meghan Duell says:

    In the short blurb about hairy eyes, are you referencing the Thurm paper from Cold Spring Harbor?

    • I’d have to go back and check – but I must run the concrete truck has just arrived…..I’ll try to remember to check

      • Marisano says:

        Say, would you mind looking up that paper concerning the flight characteristics of bees with their eye-hair removed, and then reporting back on its citation? Thanks heaps!

        • Probably not until winter – it’s bee season…but I’ll try to remember

        • Marisano says:

          Really? Is it that difficult to find? (I’ve tried and come up short, but I know a lot less about the alleged article.)

        • No, it’s a question of time. I’ve got to make 25 bottom screens, 30 tops, split 20 hives, and super half of my holdings which is around 100 hives now, move some nucs and hives into new yard, do markets and summer festivals for honey sales oh, and wire a building, trim the goats hooves, possibly go for a walk, and, my husband insists I eat a meal periodically. In the winter everything stops, it snows, and I can go on line for long periods

  9. Pingback: Honey Bees Have Hairy Eyes - Honey Bees Can't Pollinate Tomatoes

  10. Marisano says:

    Hello again. Have you had a chance to seek out that article on (facial) hair removal and its influence on bee flight?

  11. Paul says:

    Hi – funny in such an informative article, the top drawing has the simple eyes labeled as compound eyes. Love the article and great close-up photo showing all 5 eyes.

  12. Pingback: Horizon Pest Control Blog What Is The Deal With A Honeybee’s Eyes - Horizon Pest Control Blog

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