A solitary bee's compound eyes.

The Honey Bee's Sense of Smell

Honey bees, Apis mellifera, are highly social insects that live in dense colonies. For this reason, they require a sophisticated set of senses for communication. They also use their senses for food and threat detection.

The majority of bees' sensory organs are located in the antennae. This is the first part of the bee to come into contact with scent, flavor and the physical world. Aside from the antennae, their hairs are highly useful for making sense of the world around them.

The honey bee’s sense of smell is so sensitive that it can detect the trace of a scent in flight. This ability equips the bee to effectively and efficiently locate pollen-rich flowers.

  Why is the Sense of Smell Important for Honey Bees?

Cartoon of bee smelling a flower.
The sense of smell is important for honey bees to survive, reproduce, communicate, find a good food source and keep their hive safe.

Honey bees have a much better sense of smell than fruit flies or mosquitoes, but a much worse sense of taste,

Honey bees have 170 olfactory or ‘smell’ receptors, but only have 10 gustatory or ‘taste’ receptors. They use their extraordinary sense of smell to detect chemical signals, including pheromones from their surroundings.

  How Honey Bees Use Taste and Smell For Foraging

Sense of Smell

Honey bees also use odor recognition for finding food. Foraging worker bees might encounter a bewildering number of flowers to choose from, but they can discriminate between them using subtle olfactory cues. A large number of scent receptors allow the bees to find food and communicate its location to other bees.

Honey bees use their antennae to detect odor. Honey bees have 170 odor receptors (chemoreceptors) in their antennae - this is high for an insect. The honey bee’s sense of smell is so sensitive that it can detect the trace of a scent in flight. This ability equips the bee to effectively and efficiently locate pollen-rich flowers. Once the scent is detected on the antennae, the bee’s hyper-sensitive olfactory path processes the information, enabling the bee to determine the relevance of the scent to her search for pollen.

A pheromone is a chemical substance used for communication within a group of animals from the same species. In the world of honey bees, the release of a pheromone triggers some changes in the physiology and behavior of other members in the same colony.

Sense of Taste

When it comes to food, bees’ legs play the biggest role. Receptors in the tarsi and the tarsomeres allow bees to sense both salt and sweetness. Apparently sweetness is in the claws (tips of the legs) – at the tips of the legs.

The claw’s sense of taste allows worker bees to detect nectar immediately when they land on flowers. Also, bees hovering over water ponds can promptly detect the presence of salts in water through the tarsomeres of their hanging legs.

Anatomy of a Honey Bee leg.
Anatomy of a Honey Bee leg.

  How Honey Bees Use Smell for Communication

To Identify Their Nest Mates

A worker bee carries a specific odor on the body surface, which is similar to other members from the same hive. This chemical signature, resembling an identification card, informs guard bees about the origin of the bee before entering the hive. In this case, the guard bees use a specific pheromone to screen a potential intruder.

To Initiate Nursing and Foraging

Honey Bee waggle dance.
Honey Bee waggle dance.

A queen honey bee produces a mandibular pheromone to regulate large numbers of genes in the worker’s brain. As a result, this event triggers downstream behaviors of the bees, such as nursing or foraging. The queen’s mandibular might play an important role in the transition to foraging behavior in honey bees.

To Locate the Queen

Honey bees use pheromones to locate their queen and form a coherent swarm, in which each member of the same group must keep track of what others do. First, the queen produces her pheromones to notify her location. But these pheromones only travel a limited distance, so the chemicals are unable to reach bees further away. To amplify the signal, the bees closer to the queen then display ‘scenting’ behavior.

  What are the Types of Pheromones in Honey Bees?

Primer Pheromones

These pheromones cause slow and long-term changes. For example, some queen pheromones regulate large numbers of the workers’ genes and cause the delay from nursing to foraging for food.

Releaser Pheromones

These pheromones cause quick responses and short-term changes. For example, an alarm pheromone in honey bees triggers aggressive behavior by activating the expression of early genes in the brain of the workers.

Read more: Honey Bee Pheromones
Read more: Honey Bee Waggle Dance

  How Do Honey Bees Release Pheromones?

Honey bees sense pheromones by using their body parts, such as their antennae. As the phase of the pheromones is typically volatile, the cells in their smell receptors are the ones that receive the chemicals. Volatile pheromones means these chemicals are easily evaporated or easily changed from a liquid phase into a gas phase — sometimes they even come with a specific odor.

Beee in flight.

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