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My teacher says bees have five eyes. She’s creepy.

I agree she sounds kind of creepy. But here’s the problem: she is right. All types of bees really do have five eyes.

The two big eyes on a bee are called compound eyes because they are made up of thousands of tiny lenses. Each lens (called a facet) sees a small part of a scene and, all together, the lenses form an entire picture. You can compare it to a tile mosaic where tiles of different colors are put together to form a picture.

But the picture is not flat. All the facets are on a different part of a curved surface. This means the bee can easily see movement in any direction. Bees don’t see as well when everything holds still, which is why holding still can often prevent stings. Although bees see movement very easily, their eyes don’t form a clear image the way ours do.

Bee eyes also don’t see the same colors we do. They can see ultraviolet light, but we can’t. They cannot see red, but we can. In other words, they are better at seeing short wavelengths instead of long ones.

The three other eyes are called simple eyes or ocelli. They are at the top of the bee’s head in a triangular pattern and are very small. These eyes don’t see images but can detect light, especially changes in light. The ocelli help bees escape danger because if something is swooping down to eat them, the shadow created by the predator alerts the bee that something is wrong and gives it time to fly away. The compound eyes together with the ocelli make it very hard to sneak up on a bee.

Now, want to creep out your teacher? Tell her bees have hair growing out of their eyes! It’s true.

SEM image of honey bee eys. Wikimedia Commons photo by SecretDisc.
SEM image of a bee eye showing facets and hairs. Wikimedia Commons photo by SecretDisc.
The ocelli look like three tiny dots on top of this mason bees head. Photo by the author.
The ocelli look like three tiny dots on top of this mason bee’s head. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Nancy

Dear Student,

Thanks for writing to ask an expert. Hope you will send Rusty some more questions. Science IS creepy. But it’s also cool. And bees are some of the coolest creatures of all.

When I used to sub science class, the students would always settle down if I promised to tell them something creepy when they finished their work. Here’s MY favorite Creepy Science Fact: Bears love blackberries, and in summer they eat so many their poop turns blue. See if your teacher knew that.

Nan
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty

Thanks, Nan! I didn’t know that!

rjbuxton

Purely in the interests of science – and without hurting any bees – I have found it impossible to ‘move’ a bee away once it ‘locked on’ to me as a potential threat. They simply move sideways but continue to eyeball me through the veil. Wasps are sluggish easy targets by comparison when I encounter them in my beesuit and gloves. When I was in my first year of beeking, several of my stings were on the hand as the bees decided to show me who was fastest, and showing that they were fully aware of where I was vulnerable. This all surely demonstrates how superbly they are put together, and that their eyes are as good as they need to be.