Quest for the good life keeping bees

Home Page
Our Philosophy
Fruit & Vegetables
Wildlife Habitat
Home Made Food
Beer, Wine & Cider
Videos & Links
Extra Bits
Aboout Us

Keeping Honey Bees

Honey Bee Anatomy

Setting up a hive

Parts of the hive

Varroa Mites

Solitary Bees

Bumble Bees

Plants for Bees

Our Bee Garden

Honey Bee Anatomy

The idea here is to simply show the structure of the honey bee.  The picture is of a worker bee and slight variations occur in the drone and queen.

honey bee anatomy

The honey bee is an insect.  All insects have fundamentally the same basic structure, although some have modified bits here and there.

The simple bits are the head, thorax and abdomen


The head is the “Sensory Centre”  and the entrance to the digestive tract, but it also has some special glands

The antennae pick up smells, tastes and  can even detect close sounds.  They are also used to touch and communicate with other bees.  In the hive it is dark.  The antennae are the main sensory organs that help them to function in the hive.

The eyes are made up of small facets called Ommatidia.  Worker bees have 4-6000 of these but the drones can have 7000 or so.  Drones may require better visibility to see, catch up and mate with a virgin queen in flight.

More eyes? Bees also have three Ocelli on top of their heads.  These may give information about light intensity rather than vision.

The mandibles are used for chewing  and manipulating to make beeswax and propolis.  They can also be used to clean and bite.

The proboscis is its drinking straw and is used to suck up nectar from plants, but also take water back to the hive.  Food and water is exchanged between bees by trophallaxis, the passing of food from one bee to the other.  This is important when foragers return to the hive with a nectar load.  They wait just inside the entrance for food storer bees to come and take it off them.

Hidden in the head are several glands:-

The hypopharyngeal glands.  The function changes with the age of the bee.  In the young worker the hypopharyngeal glands are used to make Royal Jelly.  This special food is given to all young larvae for a short time, but the larvae destined to become queens are fed it copiously.  It is a rich food mainly composed of protein (12-13%),  sugars (11%), fatty acids (5%) but the biggest part is basically water.  It does have some minerals and enzymes, bit of vitamin C and some anti-bacterial and anti-biotic elements.  One of the proteins, called Royalactin, is responsible for turning a larva into a queen.

As worker bees get older, the function of the hypopharyngeal gland changes and when they start to forage it is more concerned with the production of enzymes to help with sugar processing.

Mandibular glands.  Again the function varies with age and type.  In the Queen bee, a pheromone is produced in this gland that keeps the colony assured of her presence.  In young workers it contributes lipids to the Royal Jelly and as the bee ages it may then become involved with producing some of the alarm pheromone.

Salivary glands are also present in the head which may help the bee process wax. 

In summary, the head of the honey bee gathers sensory information to help it find its way around the hive and outside.  It deals with feeding, both itself and other bees.


The Thorax is the middle section of the honey bee, between the head and the abdomen.  This section is mostly concerned with movement, both flight and walking.  

The thorax is actually made up of three segments but under the hairy body these are difficult to see.  The flight muscles are inside the thorax and consist of a vertical and longitudinal muscle.  When these muscles contract in turn, they force the wings up and down creating lift.  These muscles can also be used to “shiver” and make heat without flying.  This is important in winter when the bees need to keep warm.  They may also be used to create sound in communicating with other bees (piping)

The wings are attached to the thorax.  Two pairs (4 wings) are arranged so that the pair on each side are zipped together with small hairs.  This effectively creates one bigger wing that can deliver power in flight.  The drones wings are larger and the build of its thorax heavier to allow it a faster flight to catch up with young queens.  The queens wings are small in comparison to her body, but she rarely flies once mated.

Three pairs of legs (6 legs in total) are also attached to the thorax.  The front one’s are smallest and the rear one’s the largest. The back legs have special areas for collecting and holding on to pollen. These are called the “pollen baskets”.

The front legs can clean the antennae and you will often observe bees doing this before taking off from the hive.


The final section of the body is the Abdomen.  It is associated with the organs, both reproductive and food processing, the production of wax and the sting.

With the abdomen, there are functional differences between the type of honey bee.  All will have their digestive organs, but the queen and the workers have a sting whereas the drones have male reproductive organs.

The worker bees produce wax from glands underneath the abdomen.  

The queens abdomen is full of eggs and stored sperm.  


So this part of the honey bee tends to be more specialised according to what role they play in the hive

By using close up photography or microscopes, you can view parts of the bees anatomy a little closer.  Here are some close ups of the Compound eyes and the hundreds of small lens like parts called Ommatidia

honey bee compound

This picture was taken with a USB Microscope at a magnification of x400.  It shows the edge of the compound eye with all of the hexagonal Ommatidia (those individual lens like bits).  You can also see hairs (setae) coming out of the eye.  Strange really but perhaps they serve to protect the eye whilst the bee is foraging.

These individual lenses, Ommatidia, see just a small amount of the picture.  Each one sends part of a mosaic of images which the brain puts together.  Honey bees vision is better than many insects, but it is only 1/60th as efficient as human vision.

The bees ability to see colour is based upon the structure of these Ommatidia.  Beneath the surface of just one of these lenses there are an amazing 26/27 cells involved in detecting and sending a signal to the bees brain.  They are all specialised into their roles.  Some of these cells pick up on the colour of the light entering the eye.  There are 8 cells detecting the light.  Of these, 4 pick up on yellow/green light, 2 are sensitive to blue light and the last 2 respond to ultra violet light.

You can see that bees do well with blues and the ultra violet end, and the yellow part of the spectrum.  Not red though.  Perhaps that’s why our blue flowers get so many bees on them.

These lenses also pick up well on movement.  As the image passes across each facet it creates an on / off effect.  This “flicker effect” makes movement detection very good and bees are good at feeding from flowers blowing in the wind.  The movement of the flower would be detected by the bees compound eye’s flicker effect.

If the bee keeper also makes quick movements, he/she too will be seen more clearly.  So don’t flap your arms about !

honey bee rear leg close uphoney bee pollen
                              basket leg hairs

The left picture shows the end of the rear leg.  The long powerful structure ends in segments.  You can see the hairs here are short, strong and protective.  They help to rake, comb and process pollen.  The compressed pollen ends up on the pollen basket (right photo) held in place by more hairs (setae).

So hairs play an important part in the function of the honey bee.  None less so than those on it’s main body.  These are slightly different.  Instead of being straight and stiff, they are longer, softer and feathered.
honey bee
                                    body hair

These hairs cover the main body, head and thorax in particular.  Pollen gets caught in their fine branches and this is then combed off by the legs and collected on the back legs.  Of course not all pollen gets removed.  Enough is transferred to other plants to pollinate flowers, resulting in fruit and edible crops that we can benefit from.  All because of a few hairs!

Now we’ve mentioned the antennae and the role they have in communication and sensory awareness by picking up chemical and sound waves.  The base of the antennae are rugged structures just like the legs, but as you approach the ends section the structure changes.  It goes from a coarse, hairy appendage . . .


To a refined chemical sensory array. . .

honey bee antenna

Culminating in the tip of the antenna . . .

honey bee antenna

f you look at the antenna you can see that it is telescopic in structure.  Not to say they can retract it, but the way each one seems to come from the inside of the previous one.  The tip looks almost tongue like?

And finally for now in our super close in pictures, if you look back to the text about eyes, we referred to the “Ocelli”.  These were light sensitive eyes mounted on the head.  Perhaps to do with orientation relative to the light or even polarised light.  Well here’s one.  The ring of white lights are from the microscope, not the bee,  but serves to show how shiny they are