Do honey bees sleep? Of course they sleep!

I often come across lists of honey bee trivia, and one of the most common assertions is that bees never sleep. “That’s so cool!” I hear people say. “Imagine that!”

But researchers say otherwise. According to Jürgen Tautz in his book The Buzz About Bees, foragers enter a pronounced state of sleep—largely at night and in the hive. However, sometimes they sleep outside the hive as well. In addition, beekeepers and bee photographers the world over have reported seeing bees asleep in flowers. The bees may remain stationary for hours, only to fly away when disturbed.

Tautz describes the phenomenon:

Sleeping bees can be identified by a posture reflecting a lack of muscle tonus, in which the antennae hang down, and the legs are folded beneath the body.

He goes on to explain that young bees sleep for shorter periods, and not in the day-and-night rhythm so often seen in foragers. That foragers sleep in obvious patterns probably indicates the huge physical demand that foraging places on them.

An article published in the Journal of Experimental Biology (2008) by Ada D. Eban-Rothschild and Guy Bloch entitledDifferences in the sleep architecture of forager and young honeybees (Apis mellifera)” describes the different sleep patterns seen in young bees versus foragers. The piece is nicely summarized by Kathryn Phillips:

According to the team . . . the 3 day olds slept as deeply as elderly foragers, moving down through light and medium sleep until they reach deep sleep. But the way the youngsters moved between different sleep states was different from their elders. Instead of waking up immediately, like the foragers who move directly from deep sleep to consciousness, the youngsters sometimes dipped back down into deep sleep when it had looked as if they might be about to wake, and often moved back and forth between light, medium and deep sleep. . . . Once foragers wake in the morning they remain active until sunset, but the youngsters only woke for several hours at a time before dozing off again.

Overall the youngsters slept as much as their elders and were as easy to wake when the lights went on, but the older bees had a well-defined sleep pattern that the youngsters lacked. So young bees do sleep, despite their 24 h lifestyle.

We like to think of bees as “super-human” so we ascribe all sorts of unnatural behaviors to them—including the rumor that they don’t sleep. But bees are so unusual and amazing anyway that we can—and should—dispense with this myth. So get over it! Honey bees sleep.

Rusty

Comments

mary miller
Reply

I have a large flower pot full of sweat bees, How can I get rid of them?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

If the flower pot is small enough to carry, you could just dump it somewhere. If you must kill the bees (and I hope you don’t) a spray of soapy water will kill them and not contaminate anything else.

Shirley Fletcher
Reply

Do bees sleep? Yes they do, after questioning myself about a flowering plant awash with bees in the day time, I went outside at night with a flashlight and there they all were, sleeping, no movement even when I “wiggled” the flowers, fast asleep! Still not moving the next morning at 6:30 am. 8 am all abuzz again!

madison fagnan
Reply

Do honey bees sleep? If they do it would be good to know that.

Nancy
Reply

Another reason to be up and outdoors early. If the days are sunny and nights are cool, it is no surprise to find bees asleep on sunflower, chicory, fall asters and ironweed. Seems if the temperature drops while it’s still light, and they aren’t finished foraging, they sleep where they are. Almost always, as they wake, they start foraging again before they fly away.

It’s just sad that if it drops too much, they may die away from the hive. It’s gotten back up in the 50s and 60s here this weekend, and they are out and about. I guess they are gathering water and propolis, but I did see one come in with teensy pollen baskets on! Brave girl!

Caryopteris
Reply

Bumblebees sleep on my flowers a lot. They really like flowers with flat tops, like Sedum spectabile ‘Neon’ Stonecrop, pentas, and spirea shrubs. All the bees have loved these the most, even more than coneflowers in my gardens.

Cindi
Reply

Another myth busted. Kewl. “Get over it.” You crack me up, Rusty.

Grace
Reply

The other day I had my honey spinner out with wax and all to be cleaned up by the bees after extracting. I had it in the shade and it was a nice day- not hot just nice. All the bees were all over it doing their thing. I Noticed one bee was on her back, legs up, not moving and basically dead. I poked her and picked her up by a leg and she was surely dead-never moved at all. I felt bad for her and wondered why she had died as it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t hot and no other bees were dead. How could she have died chowing away on honey I wondered?

This was late morning. All day I checked on the bees and she was still there on her back dead. I figured I would move her when all the other bees left for,the night. Early in the evening I was watching the bees and all of a sudden the dead bee started moving. She wiggled her legs and then rolled over and fluffed her wings and in a few minutes flew off! This was after about 9 hours lying there not moving. I’ve resurrected cold bees after looking dead for a day but have never seen one on a warm day come back to life like that.

Soooooooo, I guess from reading your post that she was just napping???Too funny.

Rusty
Reply

Grace,

Talk about the sleep of the dead . . . that’s really strange.

Fiona
Reply

@ Grace; Ha ha! So cute. Maybe she overate and was sleeping the sleep of overindulgence. Thank you for looking out for the bees 🙂

susan
Reply

Jere you go honey bee 😉

Scott Sailors
Reply

Rusty, what about the queen? Have you come across any research describing the sleeping pattern – or lack thereof – of a queen honey bee? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Hmm, very interesting question but no. I’ve never seen anything about the sleep pattern of queen bees.

Donna
Reply

Hi. I have an American bumble bee on one of my geranium plants on my porch. He or she is huge and has been there since I’ve come home from work today around 5 pm. It appears that it’s just clinging to one of the flowers. I cannot tell if it’s dead or alive (praying still alive). Tried givin it some sugar water and not appeared as though it moved a bit afterwards. I am hoping to see it gone in the am. and praying it’s okay.

Sue
Reply

I brought in the bee because I thought it was not moving because of the cold and It was on some lavender, I also gave it sugar water. It was moving if it was touched, it would put up a leg like it was saying leave me alone! Do they die like this or is it just sleeping its been like over 8 hours.

Rusty
Reply

Sue,

It could be either. They sleep in flowers, but they can also die in the flowers.

Diane
Reply

This morning around 7:30 am, I was outside and spotted several bees very still on the side of the house, not moving. It was cool, around 59 degrees. The area they were in was on the patio, under a wisteria that is blooming again for the 3rd time this year. That is the first time I have ever seen what I considered bees sleeping.

Rusty
Reply

Diane,

Sometimes they stay out too long, I think. They get too cold to fly and then spend the night on the siding. I’ve seen that too.

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