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HomeBeekeepingHighlight on honey bee legs: they’re not only for dancing

Highlight on honey bee legs: they’re not only for dancing

Inside: The six legs of the honey bee do far more than stroll and dance. They carry out dozens of chores that have an effect on each side of honey bee life.

We seldom think about the legs of bees

Think about you’re taking part in a phrase affiliation sport reminiscent of Password and your secret phrase is “bee.” The clues you may give to elicit that phrase embody “honey,” “sting,” and “swarm.” However “legs”? By no means. Nothing about legs reminds us of bees.

This text first appeared in American Bee Journal, Quantity 163 No. 6, June 2023.

But bees, particularly honey bees, have among the niftiest legs within the animal kingdom. Though they don’t maintain a candle to millipedes for amount or harvestmen for size, they beat them hands-down for operate. Honey bee legs are like mini Swiss military knives: creatively designed and compactly saved instruments for each goal.

The thorax is an insect’s transportation hub

Like all bugs, honey bees have six legs, every arising from the thorax alongside the wings. However in honey bees, every leg pair has a singular construction, making every pair noticeably completely different from the others. And every pair performs distinctive capabilities for the multitasking honey bee.

Though bees use all three pairs for strolling and dancing, additionally they carry out uncommon feats we seldom affiliate with legs. For instance, a honey bee’s legs together with the hooked up toes (tarsal claws) can style and odor! Now these are really wonderful stunts for legs and toes(s).

Options all six legs have in widespread

Earlier than we have a look at leg variations, let’s have a look at their similarities. First, all bee legs have 5 segments. Starting on the thorax and figuring out, we have now the coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia, and tarsus. A few of these elements could also be unfamiliar to you, however some you realize, which makes them simple to be taught.

For instance, you may have a femur in your higher leg and a tibia in your decrease leg. These come collectively in a joint known as the knee. As well as, you may have a protecting plate protecting the joint known as a kneecap or patella.

Compared, a bee has six knees in precisely the identical place — between every femur and tibia. Though most bee species have a protecting protect (a kneecap of types) on the basal finish of the rear tibia, these are conspicuously absent in honey bees. Floor-dwelling bees use these basitibial plates to brace themselves within the filth whereas digging in order that they don’t lose traction or slip and tumble into the outlet.

On the far finish of your human tibia, you may have a foot fabricated from many smaller bones that assist steadiness and motion. Equally, the bee foot (or tarsus) contains 5 subsegments that assist the bee with steadiness and motion.

The 5 subsegments of the tarsus are known as tarsomeres. The primary tarsomere, closest to the bee’s physique, is named the basitarsus and the final one is named the pretarsus or distitarsus (the toe).1 In honey bees, the far (distal) finish of the pretarsus sports activities two claws (known as tarsal claws).

5 leg segments or six?

In older publications, it is not uncommon to seek out point out of six leg segments as a substitute of 5. The discrepancy entails the tarsus, and whether or not the pretarsus must be a separate leg phase or included within the tarsus as a fifth subsegment. Because the present literature often names 5 subsegments inside the tarsus, I’m utilizing that conference. Simply keep in mind that you could be see it reported in a different way.

Between the tarsal claws, you’ll find the arolium, an adhesive pad coated with tiny hairs. The pads are helpful for strolling on vertical or inverted surfaces and enabling the bees to navigate irregular or slippery substrates. The arolium and the tarsal claws are extensions of the pretarsus.

Pollen sticks all over a honey bee's body, even in her eyes. She needs her legs to collect and store the pollen in one convenient place, her pollen baskets.
A bee cleans pollen from all elements of her physique after which sends it again to the pollen press. She even has particular hairs on her forelegs to wash the pollen off her massive compound eyes.

Bee legs come in numerous lengths

Though all six legs of the honey bee have the identical segments, every pair of legs is a unique size. And it’s not stunning to be taught that employee legs differ from queen legs which differ from drone legs. As a result of every kind of bee has a singular function to play inside the colony, its legs advanced to suit the job.

In employee bees, the forelegs are the shortest, adopted by the mid legs, after which the hind legs. The queen’s legs comply with the identical sample, however general her legs prolong farther as a result of she has a much bigger physique. As well as, the queen carries her legs splayed out like a water strider, which makes them seem even longer.

Across the hive, each staff and drones preserve their legs tucked underneath their our bodies. Bees flying lengthy distances tuck them out of the best way too, though staff dangle their legs earlier than touchdown, very similar to an airplane’s touchdown gear.

All insect legs comply with an analogous mannequin, however they’ve variations that assist them with life of their distinctive surroundings. Numerous forms of bees have quirky takes on the identical elements, lots of which may also help taxonomists decide a bee’s genus.

A bee leg for each goal

With some obvious exceptions, honey bees use their legs like we use our arms and toes. Listed here are some on a regular basis makes use of for 3 pairs of honey bee legs.

  • Greedy: Occasions are many when a bee simply needs to latch on and maintain tight. When the wind is tossing her flower erratically, when she and her sisters determine to construct a scaffold for comb development, or when drone dispatching seems on the agenda, these tarsal claws are available in mighty helpful.
  • Grooming and scratching: Bees comb their bristly articulated legs throughout their our bodies to assemble pollen and take away amassed filth and dirt. And every now and then, bees seem to take a scratch identical to everybody else. Some researchers consider the European honey bee is adept at grooming away tracheal mites, one thing we’ve paid little consideration to in recent times.2
  • Tasting and smelling: Honey bees have a number of receptors for style and odor. We discover some on the mouthparts and antennae, however surprisingly, some are on the tarsi. Hair-like sensory organs known as sensilla can detect each the style and odor of issues the bee walks on. The bees ship their findings to the mind, which “decides” if the substance is an appropriate meals supply.
  • Pollen accumulating: Honey bee legs play a significant function in pollen acquisition, with most segments that includes hairs that facilitate assortment. The density, size, and thickness of hairs fluctuate relying on their location and actual goal.

Some legs are higher geared up than others for sure jobs, so let’s have a look at every pair of legs and its specialised gear.

Options of the honey bee’s forelegs

Though the forelegs are the honey bee’s shortest pair, what they lack in size they make up in operate. For instance, it’s the foreleg tarsi that harbor the sensilla for style and odor.

As well as, every foreleg has an antenna cleaner constructed proper in. The antenna cleaner contains two elements: a spherical notch within the basitarsus outfitted with stiff hairs, and a corresponding spur on the tibia.

To make it work, a bee merely lifts her foreleg over her personal antenna, after which flexes her leg. This motion makes the spur shut throughout the open notch, locking her antenna in a comfortable ring. Then she pulls her antenna by means of the ring, an motion which scrapes off any pollen and particles caught to it.

Bees clear their antennae continually. The antennae have sensors for feeling, smelling, and tasting — all issues which assist the bee navigate her world. As a result of they’re important, antennae want immaculate cleansing and upkeep. An ingenious pair of forelegs makes this all occur.

As well as, the honey bee makes use of her forelegs to wash pollen from her face and compound eyes. The hairs on her eyes maintain the pollen away from the attention floor, making them simpler to wash.

Even with six versatile legs, a honey bee has locations she will be able to’t attain for full grooming. See “Hourglass bees” for an evidence.

The boring mid-legs of honey bees

I’ve heard them known as boring. Though the mid-legs of the honey bee don’t have any spectacular gear, they’re actually vital. The 2 mid-legs assist in steadiness and stability. Though we people do fairly nicely with two legs, and most mammals get by with 4, bugs must stroll in precarious locations.

Bees must stroll on thrashing flowers, limpish petals, and up slender stems. They have to stroll on the perimeters of honeycombs with deep holes throughout, and so they even stroll on duckweed and pond scum (filamentous algae). As well as, they combat. They battle intruders and so they wrestle drones out of the home when the time is true. In every of those instances, that additional pair of legs helps their actions and aids in agility.

The mid-legs additionally assist grasp issues like stamens because the bee collects pollen from flowers: The mid-legs can cling tight whereas the forelegs interact in accumulating. As well as, the mid-legs sync with the opposite pairs to wash pollen from the bee’s physique and go it again towards the pollen baskets on the rear set of legs.

Mid-legs additionally permit “rearing up,” very similar to a horse. The honey bee can combat together with her forelegs and mandibles whereas the mid-legs and rear legs work collectively to offer steadiness and help.

As helpful because the mid-legs are, a honey bee can proceed to operate as a productive member of the colony if she loses certainly one of her mid-legs. Conversely, dropping one again leg or one foreleg leads to incapacitation for the bee and he or she is not going to survive for lengthy.

The rear 4 legs of washboarding bees keep in place whereas the entrance legs step ahead and again. Rusty Burlew

The rear legs: particularly good for storing and packing

If the mid-legs are boring, the rear legs are something however. The rear legs are the longest and the simplest for us to acknowledge due to their pollen baskets. Though pollen baskets are cool in their very own proper, they don’t maintain a candle to the gear that fills them.

Each rear legs have a secret built-in instrument for loading pollen baskets. The 2-part mechanism is named a pollen press. The pollen options two flat plates hinged collectively on one aspect. One plate is on the distal finish (the top farthest from the physique) of the tibia, whereas the opposite plate is on the basitarsus. Recall that this joint is equal to a knee.

When a honey bee bends her leg, the plates pull aside, and he or she stuffs the open press with pollen that she collects from her physique. First, she scrapes all of the pollen into one place: the within of the hind leg basitarsus. Then she combs it off the basitarsus with stiff bristles lining the sting of the pollen press known as a pollen rake. She cleans the left leg with the precise and the precise leg with the left till the open press is filled with pollen.

While you see a honey bee busily working her rear legs whereas standing agency together with her fore- and mid-legs, that is typically what she’s doing. She strikes lightning-fast, cleansing and brushing and loading the press. Then all she must do to complete the job is prolong these rear legs, one by one.

When she straightens her leg, the plates squeeze collectively, closing towards the pollen and forcing it up into the pollen basket. It’s like a tube of toothpaste: While you squeeze the 2 sides collectively, the paste comes out the highest. Right here, when the 2 plates are squeezed collectively, the pollen flows up into the pollen basket. Though it might appear backward, the pollen basket is definitely stuffed from the underside.

Each time the bee grooms the pollen from her physique, she pushes it all the way down to the within of the basitarsus of the rear legs after which into the press earlier than she provides it one other squeeze. Is that cool or what?

All collectively now: six legs working directly

Whereas the legs of honey bees possess distinctive elements that work independently for some chores, they typically work collectively. The next actions require a number of units of legs.

Strolling: Like different bugs, the nervous system of the bee coordinates the motion of the legs in order that they don’t get snarled. Anybody who journeys over their very own two toes is aware of how treacherous six might turn into.

However based on Caron & Connor in “Honey Bee Biology,” the bees’ six legs operate in units of three, with every set forming a triangle. “The primary and third leg on one aspect work with the center leg of the alternative aspect.”3 I solely observed this as soon as it was identified to me, nevertheless it just about eliminates the journey hazard and appears type of freaky.

Pollen packing: One other instance of legs working collectively happens because the bee cleans its physique of pollen. A bee that has been foraging could have pollen throughout, from head to foot. She wants to gather all of it and by some means get it within the pollen baskets.

In a clean sequence, the forelegs go the pollen to the mid-legs, which go it to the rear legs, typically crisscrossing back and forth because the left aspect cleans the precise and vice versa. Watch a honey bee packing pollen and you will note all six legs working in concord.

Festooning: The tarsal claws on all six toes assist the honey bee grasp onto objects or onto one another. When honey bee staff type a festoon — a type of lacy-looking scaffolds — the bees cling onto one another’s legs to type intricate chains. As a result of the legs are sturdy and versatile, chain constructing provides bees quick access to areas that might in any other case be tough to achieve.

Pheromone distribution: All six toes ship the footprint pheromones used for communication and colony regulation. When a employee walks throughout a flower petal, or throughout the doorway to her hive, hive mates can “learn” this sign and know they’re in the precise place.

Washboarding: One other use for all six legs directly is washboarding. Throughout washboarding, you will note many bees on the entrance of the hive, maybe a whole bunch. All of them face the identical course and rock forwards and backwards in a mesmerizing show. Look rigorously and you’ll see the rear 4 legs keep in a single spot, whereas the forelegs step ahead and again, ahead and again.

Together with the steps, the bees do one thing with their mouthparts. This baffling habits is regarded as associated to cleansing, sharpening, or pathogen administration, but nobody is aware of for certain. What we do know is that it’s nice enjoyable to look at.

Honey bees in a festoon are working onerous at constructing a comb from a starter strip. They cling collectively by greedy one another leg to leg. Rusty Burlew.

Please clear your toes earlier than entry

Most beekeepers fear little about all of the strolling honey bees do inside the hive. Nevertheless, producers of comb honey obsess over it. The issue? Foragers have soiled toes. Extremely soiled toes.

As foragers enter the hive from the nice open air, they depart footprints in every single place. The filth might come from exterior the hive or the bees might acquire filth and bits of pollen on the trek from the hive entrance to the honey storage space. In any case, these soiled trails have a reputation: “journey stain.”

Journey stains can harm a comb honey producer’s backside line. As a substitute of gleaming white cappings, the potential purchaser might even see a smeared darkness, harking back to a senescent dishrag. Or generally the stain resembles smeared egg yolk — just like the yellow brick street, solely not in a great way. These smudges end result from layer upon layer of pollen laid down by hundreds of toes touring forwards and backwards, day after day.

Some comb honey producers give their bees higher entrances to maintain the foragers from stepping in brood field particles on the best way to the supers. Others preserve a detailed watch on the frames, instantly eradicating any that turn into utterly capped.

After I visited a daffodil breeding middle in Oregon, I needed to step in a bleach bucket earlier than coming into the fields to forestall soil contamination. I’ve typically thought that comb honey producers want an analogous foot tub for his or her bees to maintain them clear sufficient for the job.

The six-pack that retains honey bees on their toes

The following time you’re watching your honey bees, look carefully at these advanced underrated legs. Strive to determine what they’re doing, how they coordinate, and the place they’re saved.

Honey bee legs present an ideal instance of the large impression that seemingly insignificant elements of nature can have. The complexity and adaptableness of honey bee legs (and feats) remind me to understand these small issues that always go unnoticed.


  1. Michener CD. 2007. Bees of the World, 2nd Ed. Johns Hopkins College Press. Baltimore, MD.
  2. Danka RF and Villa JD. 1997. Proof of auto-grooming as a mechanism of honey bee resistance to tracheal mite infestation. Journal of Apicultural Analysis 37(1): 39-46C.
  3. Caron DM and Connor LJ. 2013. Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping. Wicwas Press. Kalamazoo, MI.

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