Colours perception: how are colours for bees?

Right last week we spoke about endless yellow rapeseeds fields. Like a huge soft carpet, bright like the sun. I can understand bees, that can´t wait to dive into it. I would do the same. And today, as first article of November – the month generally connected first of all to the dull grey – we want to add a bit of colour and we want to tell you more about how bees perceive colours. Yes, because pondering about it, we all know very well colours. They are also among the first words we learn when we get closer to a new language. Or think of how many games and activities with colours for children already at the kindergarten! The question now is: is our idea of colour the same as bees´ones? How do bees perceive colours? Is there any colour that they perceive in a different way compared to us? And the flowers, so wonderfully colourful: is this maybe a way to attract bees and pollinators?

Karl Von Frisch and bees’ colours perception

Who is particularly fond on beekeeping has probably already heard about Karl Von Frisch (1886 – 1982). If it sounds completely new to you, no problem, you can catch up with a book that I suggest you “The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees”. A little book sooo interesting about bees and their way to communicate and perceive what surrounds them. This sir is not exactly an ordinary person: expert number one and professor emeritus of Zoology, he has discovered very much about bees thanks to several experiments. In 1973 he received the Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine. Thanks to his researches, today we know that yes, there is a connection between the colours of flowers and the pollinators tasks. Thanks to flowers´ colours and smells, bees find again and again more easily what for them is source of food. Moreover, always remember, it’s not a matter of stealing nectar without giving anything in exchange. It’s a mutual exchange where bees, in exchange of a bit of nectar, let plants reproduce through pollination. Nature and its own balance, so nice!

Karl and his several researches

Bees' colours perception: have you ever pondered about it?
Colours and bees…eternal love 🙂

Of course, mr Von Frish came to certain conclusions only after many experiments and observations about bees. In order to find out more about bees colours perception, he had prepared a light blue cardboard that smelled of honey and that bees couldn´t help visiting. After a while he took away this one and put a red cardboard and another light blue one, but this time both without any smell. Bees continued to fly on the light blue ones. Nevertheless, from this very first experiment it was not clear if bees could really distinguish between the two colours as they were or they were only perceived as different shades of a same colour. A bit like a daltonic person can perceive colours. So??  So nothing, the experiment continued obviously! He has put the usual light blue cardboard with honey smell and all possible grey-shaded cardboards all around. Hence, in this case a step further: bees still went on the light blue ones! Here the confirmation that yes, bees can perceive colours.

Colours perception: is there any colour that does not attract bees?

With more experiments, it was understood that bees are attracted not only by light blue, but also by orange, yellow, green, violet and purple. While, listen to this: they react to red and black in the same way. What does this mean? It means that bees don´t see the red colour. So it’s absolutely true that bees can perceive colours, but not exactly like us. Moreover, some colours for them are much more similar between each other in comparison to what we perceive. For example, bees can easily confuse the light blue with violet and purple, and yellow with orange and green.

Is there any colour that bees can see but not us?

What do you think?… the answer is yeees! They can see perfectly ultraviolet, that for us is completely invisible. Moreover, it exists the so called “white of the bees” as well. For us, the colour white means “lack of colour”. If we mix together all the colours that we know, we get the white colour. For bees instead the white of the bees is made by all the colours perceived by the bees (so in this case the ultraviolet is included). Our white can be perceived in two different ways by the bees: if it contains the ultraviolet (that we can’t see), it’s the white of the bees. And without ultraviolet? Bees see it as a bright green-blue! Think of this next time you see any white flowers 😊

Bees and perception of the red

Seriously? They can’t see red colour? Yes, such a wonderful bright colour, and… they can’t care less. It’s also for this reason that in Europe there aren’t so many red flowers, as Von Frish pointed out. I never noticed this before but it’s really this way: in comparison to other colours they are much more uncommon. This  because the insects that should pollinate these flowers, wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Again Von Frish and his fantastic book full of curiosities, tell us that instead in Africa and in America there are much more scarlet flowers species. However, these flowers are pollinated not only by insects but especially by hummingbird that are instead much attracted by this coulour. Nothing at random then!

Ehy you don’t trick me…what about poppies?

Yes, indeed i was wondering the same when I was reading about this red issue! The very first red flower that came to my mind were poppies and I can see them around quite often, is there anything in particular about them? Yes, another little big curiosity: poppies reflect the ultraviolet sunrays, so bees are attracted from them not for their red coulour but for th ultraviolet light that they reflect. So bees have a definitely different vision of poppies compared to ours!

…that´s crazy, not only bees perceive coulours but the same flowers have specific colours according to their main visitors. I believe that it is absolutely charming this continuous natural symbiosis, this crazy balance existing since ever and that we can’t help admiring, respecting and taking as example. What do you think about it? Have you enjoyed this colourful article? And now that you know which colours bees particularly appreciate, you can start thinking of which flowers plant the next Spring 😊 which ones would you opt for?

A hug,

The Gaeblini

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