Honey Bees Have Hairy Eyes

Honey bee foraging on knapweed.  The bodies of honey bees are completely covered in hair – even the eyes!Honey bee foraging on knapweed. The bodies of honey bees are completely covered in hair – even the eyes!

The bodies of honey bees are completely covered in hair – even the eyes!  So:

  • why do honey bees have hairy eyes, and
  • how does this interesting feature assist them?

The importance of hairs on the eyes of honey bees

Honey bee worker foraging on a wild rose - with a dusting of pollen particles on the bee's body, as well as full pollen baskets.Honey bee worker foraging on a wild rose - note the dusting of pollen particles on the bee's body, as well as the full pollen baskets.

Although the hair on the eyes of honey bees do not really show up on any of the photographs on this website, nevertheless scientists do, of course, have access to very powerful equipment that enables them to study the anatomy of bees (and other creatures), and identify features that are not visible to the human eye.

Honey bees (like all flower-foraging insects) get covered in millions of grains of pollen when they are visiting flowers.  This is a deliberate process and part of their method of collecting pollen.  The hair on the eyes of the honey bee is important because the bees’ eyes become covered with pollen too, so the hair prevents the pollen becoming stuck directly to the eyes. 

However, if the pollen was not removed from the eye hairs, then it would become difficult to fly and to navigate.  Therefore, honey bees must remove the pollen from their bodies - and especially their eyes, by transferring the pollen to corbiculae (pollen baskets) on their hind legs for transport back to the hive. 


How do honey bees clean the pollen away from their eyes?

Honey bee foraging on sedum flowers.Honey bee foraging on sedum flowers.

A study (“Honey bee hairs and pollenkitt are essential for pollen capture and removal”, by Amador et al, published in 2017(1)) used specialised filming techniques (high speed videography) to show honey bees grooming themselves and transferring pollen from the eye hairs to the hind legs. They also demonstrated the importance of a sticky fluid on pollen grains known as pollenkitt.  Pollenkitt has an odor that attracts pollinating insects, whilst possibly helping the pollen grains to adhere to the insect’s body.

In particular, the scientists were interested to know how many ‘swipes’ of their legs over the eyes and body were required by the bees to transfer the pollen onto their hind legs.


What did they find?

Honey bee foraging on hemp agrimony.Honey bee foraging on hemp agrimony.


Firstly, the scientists showed that honey bees seem to have a pre-programmed method of cleaning, which doesn’t vary from bee to bee and is not dependent on how dirty the bees are, nor on how much pollen is covering them.  The bees always swipe their eyes in the same way, using their forelegs to swipe across the eyes and antennae.

Furthermore, it takes between 10 and 20 swipes to fully clean the eyes and antennae.

The scientists also showed that pollen grain size is important in cleaning: very small particles of pollen can slip down lower into the spaces between the hairs on the bees’ eyes, whereas larger pollen particles remain suspended near the tips of the eye hairs, and so can be easily removed and collected.

The hairs on the bees’ forelegs are ideal for the job of eye grooming, since the hairs on the legs are slightly longer than the eye hairs, so that they can reach into the spaces between the eye hairs to collect as much pollen as possible.

 

Reference:

(1) Guillermo J Amador, Marguerite Matherne, D'Andre Waller, Megha Mathews1, Stanislav N Gorb and David L Hu : Honey bee hairs and pollenkitt are essential for pollen capture and removal; March 2017; IOP Publishing Ltd - Bioinspir. Biomim. 12 026015.

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