What Colors Do Bees See (and painting bee hives)

Good weather broke out, finally, in July.  This is news at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey here in Maple Falls Washington.  The month of June gave us 5 days of sun, 5 days of overcast, and all the rest was rain.  So when the sun started shining on July 4 (after 2 inches of rain on July 3) it was actually a cause for celebration – and the sign that I could return to painting bee boxes, tops, and bottom screens.

But that’s a bit dull to read about. Some musings, and studies, on what colors bee see would be a bit more interesting.

Honeybees Do Not See The Same Colors We Do

Bees get to see in the ultraviolet world.  We can use photographic techniques to mimic that world, but all resulting colors are approximations of what a bee MIGHT see.  (More photos by scientist-cameraman Bjorn Roslett can be found at his web site NaturFotograf.com  (click on Infrared in the left side menu

We can never see colors the way bees see them.

  • Bees see “primary colors” as blue, green and ultraviolet
  • They can distinguish yellow, orange, blue-green, violet, purple, as combinations of their three primary colors.
  • Humans see “primary colors” as red, blue, and green
  • We can distinguish about 60 other colors as combinations of our three primary colors.

Bear in mind that not all the studies agree on the exact colors or preferences bees see, but they all agree red is black

Some studies propose that honeybees see orange, yellow, and green as one color (green in that group surprised me).   Blue, violet and purple are seen as a second color.

Ultraviolet being their third color.

Honeybees Do Not See Red

It’s not that they don’t get angry (as in “to see red”), but honeybees see the color red as black.

Honeybees Versus Humans : A Breakdown

(Courtesy of West Mountain Apiary, where a very good write-up about color can be found)

Humans Honeybees
Red Black
Yellow Yellow-Green
Orange Yellow – Green (darker perhaps than yellow)
Green Green
Blue Blue plus Ultraviolet blue
Violet Blue plus Ultraviolet
Purple Blue
White Blue-Green
Black Black

Their Favorite Colors?

Their favorites are said by some to be: purple, then violet, then blue (which all look different to them).   I could not find the study that came to this conclusion, but I like it, as my favorite colors are purple, violet, and then blue.

How Do We Know All This?

We don’t know it all; studies vary.  However:

Bee’s color sense was partially demonstrated by Karl von Frisch.  In 1915, he showed that bees could discern green, yellow, orange, blue, violet, and purple.  He did this by using colored cards and bee feed.  He imprinted the bees with the idea that feed could be found on a blue card, but not the other colors.  When he removed the feed, the bees still went to the blue card.  He then tried this with green, yellow, orange, violet, purple and red.  The only color it did NOT work with was red.

In 1927, Professor A. Kuhn took the study of honeybees’ color sense further.  He tested bees using the visible spectrum for humans, but also used longer and shorter wavelengths : the ultraviolet and infrared.  The infrared was black to the bees, but ultraviolet was a color.

You CAN Try This At Home

A very nice PowerPoint presentation at this Link from the University of Nebraska, will walk you though an experiment on which colors in our visible spectrum honeybees can see.  Sorry, there’s no test for ultraviolet.

Back To Painting Bee Gear

Beekeeper Bean talks to other beekeepers in her bee yard.  Photo by Lisa Phillips, Round Tuit Farms

As you can see over time I have used purple (ok blue to them, but I like purple), yellow, orange, blue and green.  It turns out this is helpful to the bees as it distinguishes their hive from the others in the yard.  I did it because I thought the bee yards looked prettier with all the colors and red has never been a particular favorite of mine.  (Photo by Lisa Phillips, Round Tuit Farms)

Orange and Green bee hive tops drying at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

My most current bee hive top color choices of mariposa lily orange and forest green (the husband says it’s British Racing Green) came from long, diligent thought (kind of). The green was in the hayloft, left over painting trim on my house.  The orange was was last year’s color, and I had a bit left.  That paint ran out before I was done with the tops and the Stockton’s Paints, my favorite paint store is an hours drive away (one way).

That’s my one tip on painting: if you are going to take the time to paint your bee gear, use good quality paint.  Primer and two coats of color, just like a house.  I’ve bee gear that I painted over a decade ago and it is still just fine, even in our 8 month rains.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.  It’s still bright and sunny, so I’m back to painting bee boxes…

What colors have you chosen for your hives?  Why did you make those choices?  I think the colors in a bee yard are one of the fun parts of beekeeping.


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