Few things are more breathtaking than a rainbow of flowers in your garden. The vivid bluebells contrast with sunny daffodils. The red and pink roses stand out against the orange honeysuckle. No matter where you look, these pretty petals catch your eye, and all you want to do is drink in the sight.
But you aren’t the only one to admire your annual blooms.
Fat, round bumblebees drone lazily from one blossom to the next. Though the bees seem thorough in their search for pollen, you can’t help but notice that some flowers receive more visits than others. Do the bees see something in your flowers that you can’t?
A Closer Look at Bee Color Vision
Humans and bees both have trichromatic vision, which means we (and they) have three types of photoreceptors that pick up light and color.
In humans, the photoreceptors allow us to see blue, green, and red colors as well as their varying combinations. Scientifically, we can see light waves ranging from 400 to 700 nanometers. Ultraviolet radiation and infrared radiation are just outside our range of sight, so we can’t see these light waves without the aid of electronic devices.
In bees, their photoreceptors allow them to see blue and green colors and their varying combinations. But they can pick up light waves on a lower scale than ours, from 300 to 600 nanometers. As a result, bees can detect ultraviolet wavelengths, but they cannot see the color red (though they do see wavelengths with reddish hues, such as orange).
Which Flowers Do They Prefer?
Bees depend a great deal on their sight to determine which flowers have the most nectar, their primary food source. Though bees do not see colors in the same way we do, these colors help them distinguish which flower species continues to provide food, visit after visit.
Although scientific studies have varying results, most experts agree that bees prefer violet- and blue-colored flowers, as these flowers are frequently the most fruitful in many natural habitats. White flowers also attract bees, possibly because bees see the flowers as blue-green rather than white.
Which Flowers Do They Avoid?
Though bees will stop on most flowers ranging between purple and orange, they tend to avoid red flowers. As red sits just outside their color spectrum, the bees see red-colored flowers as black.
For many bees, black has evolved to become a warning sign. Bears, skunks, and other predators often have these darker colors, so bees will stay defensive whenever they see the color.
But contrary to popular belief, bees don’t always act aggressively toward individuals wearing a certain color, such as red or black. Rather, these insects depend on multiple factors to determine friendly flower from deadly foe.
What Other Factors Influence Bee Behavior?
Just like humans, bees rely on multiple senses to determine the best food sources. In addition to color, bees use the following traits to find nectarrich blossoms:
- Shape – Bees need a space they can crawl into or land on, so they prefer tubular-shaped blooms or small, flat flowers.
- Scent – Flowers that emit a light, pleasant scent often have the most nectar for bees to enjoy.
- Patterns – Some flowers have ultraviolet patterns that we cannot see, but the bees can. These patterns often create a bull’s-eye shape that guides the bees to land on the flower.
- Iridescence – Iridescent flowers appear to have different colors, depending on the angle you view them at. Though we can detect some amounts of iridescence, most of these color changes fall into the UV spectrum outside our range of sight. Bees, however, pick up iridescence, and the multi-colored flashes attract the insects to the flower.
- Electrical Fields – Though research is ongoing, experts have found that bees can detect a flower’s electrical field. The electrical charge helps the pollen stick more effectively to the bee’s legs, and in some cases, the charge allows the pollen to jump to the bee without the insect ever landing. Furthermore, the bees may even use the electrical charge to determine if other bees have recently landed on the flower.
As you can see, bees have remarkable sensory abilities to help them find food. And when they use all these senses together, bees quickly choose certain flower species over others.
Plant With Bees in Mind
If you wish to attract bees to your garden so they better pollinate your flowers, consider planting a variety of blue, purple, and white flowers such as Mojave lupine, Parry’s beardtongue, and sacred thorn-apple.
But if you worry about bees stinging your friends or family members, consider planting shrubs or bushes with bright red flowers such as ocotillo. Or you can opt for plants that flower only at night (such as the cereus) when bees are inactive.
And if the bees continue to swarm in your garden, despite your careful planting decisions, simply contact a pest control expert for additional advice.