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Do bees have knees?

Last week I was speaking to a high school beekeeping club when one of the attendees asked the inevitable question: “Do bees have knees?” The answer of course is yes. In fact, they have six.

In humans, the knee is the joint between the femur and the tibia. Since bees have a femur and a tibia in each leg, they sure as heck have knees. Of course, those joints don’t have a kneecap (patella), but does that really matter?

What about ankles?

When I was researching material for the Honey Bee Legs Quiz, I never ran into the term “knee,” but I did see the word “ankle” used in several publications.

Recall that a bee leg has five major segments: coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia, and tarsus. The tarsus—which is further divided into the basitarsus, tarsomeres, and pretarsus—is referred to as the “foot,” which makes the joint between the tibia and the tarsus an “ankle” of sorts.

The arrows point to the joints between the femur and the tibia on a honey bee worker's legs. You can think of these as the bee's knees.
The arrows point to the joints between the femur and the tibia on a honey bee worker’s legs. You can think of these as “knees.” © Rusty Burlew.

Knee patches

Ground-nesting bees often have bare spots at the knees. In order to give themselves leverage, many ground-nesting bees brace themselves with their legs against the sides of the tunnel as they dig. I’ve always wondered if this activity wears away the hairs at the knee, of if they don’t have hairs there to begin with.

Alternatively, maybe the pollen falls off that area when they bend their knees. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that a bare spot is nearly always visible, as you can see in the photos below. It reminds me of the worn spots on my jeans, the result of taking too many photos of bees.

Often, the "knees" of ground-dwelling bees are bare, even though pollen is all around, as shown on this alkali bee, <em>Nomia melanderi.</em> &copy; Rusty Burlew.
Often, the “knees” of ground-dwelling bees are bare, even though pollen is all around, as shown on this alkali bee, Nomia melanderi. © Rusty Burlew.
This Andrena, another ground-dwelling species, also has a bare knee.
This Andrena, another ground-dwelling species, also has a bare knee. © Rusty Burlew.
This sweat bee also has bare knee patches.
This sweat bee, a Halictid, also has two small bare knee patches. © Rusty Burlew.

The phrase “the bee’s knees” is an informal expression referring to something outstanding or truly excellent. “His new phone is the bee’s knees!” How did it come about? Most people think it’s just a rhyming thing. It appears to have originated in the 1920s along with many similar terms that involved animals, such as “the cat’s pyjamas,” which means basically the same thing.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Ray
Reply

You are definitely the ‘Bees Knees’ Rusty, thought provoking and informative post as always.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Ray!

David R
Reply

I heard this was the source of “the bee’s knees”:

God to Angel: “I want you to make a creature that not only pollinates the plants of the earth and brings forth good food, but also makes sweet honey from the flowers’ nectar.”

Angel to God: “You got it boss!”

God: “…and give ’em the best knees in the universe!”

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

I have two minds. The first thanks you for your scientific educational material.
The second says, look, they have knees and elbows on the same limb!

Rusty
Reply

Elbows?

Granny Roberta in nw Connecticut USA
Reply

You may have suggested ‘ankles’.

The teacher can’t be blamed if the student is making up her own answers.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thanks Rusty —

Seems a pity that bees have many knees and no elbows.

That beeing said, the “knees” have been a helpful landmark when looking at bees — beginning with photos. I’ve learned to separate male from female bumble bees by the shape of the femur (shaped for pollen collection, or not) — after sorting out the (many) parts of the legs, starting from the obvious “knees”.

Glen

Janet in NC Ohio
Reply

Thank you for those excellent bee photos. I’m learning ID skills sloooowly.

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