Planet Earth

The Alluring and Alien Sights of a Bee in Ultra Close-up

See the honeybee's hairy eyeball, barbed stinger, and detachable wings at astounding magnifications.

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Photo Credits: Text by Eliza Strickland, Images by Rose-Lynn Fisher

The bee is ready for its close-up.

For the remarkable new book BEE from Princeton Architectural Press, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher used a high-resolution scanning electron microscope to reveal the gorgeous complexities of honeybee anatomy. Fisher writes that the microscope "presents a realm of structure, design, and pattern at a level of intricacy we are oblivious to in our daily experience."

At magnifications ranging from 10x to 5000x, the photographs reveal amazing details of the honeybee's features, down to the hairs that protrude from its compound eyes and the tiny hooks that hold its wings together.

A bee's antenna is packed with thousands of sensory cells. Bees use their antennae to smell, taste, and hear, as well as to detect changes in temperature, wind, and humidity.

These sense organs not only help the bee steer through the outside world, they also help it navigate the social world of the hive. Bees communicate in large part through chemical pheromones, with different odors signaling everything from alarm to an individual bee's status.

Each of the honeybee's compound eyes is made up of thousands of hexagonal, faceted lenses that can detect visible, ultraviolet, and polarized light. Some flowers bear ultraviolet markings, invisible to the human eye, that attract the worker bee and tell her where to land to scoop up nectar or pollen.

The hairs on the honeybee's eyes also collect grains of pollen.

The mouthparts of the bee include the proboscis, which allows the bee both to draw up nectar from flowers, and later to regurgitate it to other workers in the hive. There, it's processed into honey.

This picture focuses on the bee's tongue, called the glossa. This organ is not only involved in feeding, but also plays a role in communication. The glossa is used to lick up the queen's pheromones, the chemical signals the queen produces to give orders to her workers and drones.

When a honeybee is foraging, she ends up covered in pollen. While some of this pollen ends up on other blossoms, thus pollinating the plants, the bee also brings protein-rich pollen back to the hive.

Her pollen-handling method is ingenious. She cleans the pollen dust from her body with the brushes on her legs, then transfers the collected pollen to the pollen press on her back legs. There it is compacted into a pellet and pushed to a structure called the pollen basket for storage. All this is done while she hovers in the air.

Here, pollen grains are shown lodged in the pollen basket for safekeeping, anchored by hairs on the bee's hind leg. Curved hairs hold the pollen pellet in place during flight.

Behold the stinger, the bee's most famous feature. Located at the rear of the honeybee's body, the stinger is actually a modified ovipositor, the organ used for laying eggs.

Bees will only sting in self-defense or to protect the hive, and anyone who has had a run-in with a beehive can testify that it's an effective defense. If one worker bee senses danger she emits a warning pheromone that summons other bees to the fight.

The honeybee's stinger is barbed, meaning that fights quickly turn into suicide missions.

When a bee stings a human, bear, or other mammal, the barbs of the stinger become embedded in the opponent's flesh. As the bee struggles to free herself, the last segment of her abdomen tears away from her body and remains behind with the stinger. The bee dies within minutes.

This is the wing of a male bee, or drone, whose singular purpose in the colony is to mate with the queen. After he's fulfilled this mission, he dies. As mating occurs while the bees are in flight, the drones need powerful wings to pursue the queen.

The wings of female worker bees are powerful, too. A worker beats its wings up to 230 times per second, creating the buzzing sound that signals the presence of a busy beehive. Workers beat their wings to create warmth inside the hive, which helps evaporate away the water in the nectar and speeds its transformation into thick honey.

The honeybee has large forewings and a smaller hind wings. This photo shows how the fore and hind wings attach together with a series of tiny hooks. During flight, these hooks allow the two wings to function as one. At rest, the hooks slip out and the wings disconnect, allowing them to be folded separately over the bee's back.

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