A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

What Bees See

Helping them recover from a sickness that’s been ravaging their hives

A creeping zinnia — what a bee sees compared to what a human sees. Photo by Klaus Schmitt

When you or I look at a flower, we generally see a thing of beauty. When a bee looks at a flower, she sees a runway, a landing strip, and a clear path to where the nectar and pollen are.

Bees have different color detection systems from humans, and can see in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum.

“The world we see is not the physical or the ‘real’ world,” explained Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. “Different animals have very different senses. Much of the colored world that’s accessible to bees and other animals with UV receptors is entirely invisible for us.”

A new visual database, developed by Prof. Chittka, allows scientists, botanists, farmers and gardeners to see flowers and other plants through the eyes of bees and other pollinating insects and to design gardens and greenhouses that are bee-friendly. This is especially important at a time when bees are just beginning to recover from Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated their populations around the world. (As amateur beekeepers have been building and caring for new hives, populations in the U.K. have doubled in the last six months, according to Martin Smith of the British Beekeepers’ Association.)

Seeing the world as insects may see it can reveal “landing strips” which are invisible to the human eye. These act to guide insects to the nectar they feed on.

These landing strips might take the form of concentric circles of color or dots.

“Quite often, you will find in radial symmetrical patterns that there is a central area which is differently colored,” said Prof. Chittka. “In other flowers there are also dots in the center which indicate where the bee to put its tongue to extract the goods.”

Is there a value to this information beyond pure interest? Anyone growing plants for food knows that we humans are entirely dependent on bees and other insects to pollinate the plants so they can grow and spread.

“Every third bite that you consume at the dinner table is the result of insect pollinators’ work,” said Prof. Chittka. “We need to understand what kind of a light climate we need to generate in [greenhouses] to facilitate detection of flowers by bees.”

This database includes over 2,000 images from countries like Germany, Norway and Brazil. It’s free to use for scientists and anyone else who wants to make habitat or global comparisons of floral color.