Do Bees Have Ears?

Living things use sound for communication, navigation, and even hunting. This requires ‘auditory perception’ – how our brain interprets the sounds in our environment. For many species, the ear is key to hearing –  scientists think that the middle ear in humans evolved from the gills of fish – is that true for all species? For example, do bees have ears, and more importantly, do they need them?

How bees communicate

Bees in a bee hive on honeycombs
Bees in a bee hive on honeycombs. Credits: Deposit photos/Leonid Eremeychuk

Bees perceive vibrations through their antennae and legs through special body parts which are very different from the sensory organs we usually associate with sound. Their antennae have special sensory cells in the form of the Johnston’s organ and they have subgenual organs on their legs.

Using these, they pick up the various buzzing noises that bees use to communicate and which strongly affect the behavior of their colonies. Bees produce noise by ‘dancing’ or buzzing their wings at specific frequencies to communicate messages like the availability of food nearby.

What range can bees hear?

Compared to humans, bees have simpler ‘hearing’ systems which do not include structures like the cochlea or eardrums that translate sound vibrations. However, the vibrations they pick up with their legs and antennae can be felt throughout their whole body!

The frequencies that bees can sense include those between 10 and 500 Hz, including human voices. If they are loud enough, bees can even ‘hear’ these sounds through airborne vibrations. Loud noises in the range of 100-1200 decibels may put bees into a trance! This phenomenon is being studied by researchers.

Bees on the dance floor

Bees flap their wings rapidly to show others where there is nectar
Bees flap their wings rapidly to show others where there is nectar. Credits: Deposit photos/Inventor

During their wagging dance, bees can produce ‘sounds’ of up to 250Hz or 250 oscillations in every second. This vibration, occurring on a designated “dance floor” in hives, facilitates effective communication among bees, essential for their survival. It can only be produced from empty cells in the hive and the can be heard from every corner of the comb!

Antennae shapes vary across species

The bee’s antennae aid hearing by capturing microscopic particles in the air and transferring the vibrations to the Johnston’s organ where they create minute vibrations against the neurons and set off electric signals in the brain. By moving the antennae, bees can detect where a sound is coming from and use that as a directional cue.

Depending on their ecological role, antennae shapes vary, which means that different bees could perceive sounds differently. For example, orchid bees have antennae that can be longer than the length of their bodies!

How we learned about bee hearing

Scientists found that bees respond to sound cues, like avoiding mild shocks, proving they can pick up airborne sounds. They detect vibrations using special organs in their legs and antennae. Bees communicate by vibrating wings and abdomens, sharing vital info like where to find food. These abilities help bees survive and work together in their hives.

Researchers learned that Johnston’s organ has more than 300 nerve cells positioned in the shape of a bowl which picks up mechanical vibrations, converts them into nerve impulses, and relays them to the brain.

They also found that worker bees receive ‘piping’ messages from scout bees that tell them when it is time to look for a new nest. Honeybee queens also communicate with the rest of their hive through ‘quacking’ and ‘tooting’ signals.

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References

  1. The Human Middle Ear May Have Evolved From Fish Gills – Technology Networks Neuroscience News & Research (2022). https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/news/the-human-middle-ear-may-have-evolved-from-fish-gills-362656
  2. How do the senses of bees work? – Mr Wasp (2022). https://www.mrwasp.co.uk/how-do-the-senses-of-bees-work
  3. Do bees have ears? – Bees Wiki (n.d.). https://beeswiki.com/do-bees-have-ears/
  4. Can a bee hear? – Plattner Bienenhof. https://www.museo-plattner.com/en/cms/25-can-a-bee-hear
  5. Honeybees hear with their legs – Bee Mission (2022). https://beemission.com/blogs/news/honeybees-hear-with-their-legs
  6. Can bees hear and do they have ears like we do – Medium (). https://medium.com/@vegasbees/can-bees-hear-and-do-they-have-ears-like-we-do-a320798c5528

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