Do honey bees sleep? Of course they sleep!

I often come across lists of honey bee trivia, and one of the most common assertions is that bees never sleep. “That’s so cool!” I hear people say. “Imagine that!”

But researchers say otherwise. According to Jürgen Tautz in his book The Buzz About Bees, foragers enter a pronounced state of sleep—largely at night and in the hive. However, sometimes they sleep outside the hive as well. In addition, beekeepers and bee photographers the world over have reported seeing bees asleep in flowers. The bees may remain stationary for hours, only to fly away when disturbed.

Tautz describes the phenomenon:

Sleeping bees can be identified by a posture reflecting a lack of muscle tonus, in which the antennae hang down, and the legs are folded beneath the body.

He goes on to explain that young bees sleep for shorter periods, and not in the day-and-night rhythm so often seen in foragers. That foragers sleep in obvious patterns probably indicates the huge physical demand that foraging places on them.

An article published in the Journal of Experimental Biology (2008) by Ada D. Eban-Rothschild and Guy Bloch entitledDifferences in the sleep architecture of forager and young honeybees (Apis mellifera)” describes the different sleep patterns seen in young bees versus foragers. The piece is nicely summarized by Kathryn Phillips:

According to the team . . . the 3 day olds slept as deeply as elderly foragers, moving down through light and medium sleep until they reach deep sleep. But the way the youngsters moved between different sleep states was different from their elders. Instead of waking up immediately, like the foragers who move directly from deep sleep to consciousness, the youngsters sometimes dipped back down into deep sleep when it had looked as if they might be about to wake, and often moved back and forth between light, medium and deep sleep. . . . Once foragers wake in the morning they remain active until sunset, but the youngsters only woke for several hours at a time before dozing off again.

Overall the youngsters slept as much as their elders and were as easy to wake when the lights went on, but the older bees had a well-defined sleep pattern that the youngsters lacked. So young bees do sleep, despite their 24 h lifestyle.

We like to think of bees as “super-human” so we ascribe all sorts of unnatural behaviors to them—including the rumor that they don’t sleep. But bees are so unusual and amazing anyway that we can—and should—dispense with this myth. So get over it! Honey bees sleep.

Rusty

Comments

mary miller
Reply

I have a large flower pot full of sweat bees, How can I get rid of them?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

If the flower pot is small enough to carry, you could just dump it somewhere. If you must kill the bees (and I hope you don’t) a spray of soapy water will kill them and not contaminate anything else.

Shirley Fletcher
Reply

Do bees sleep? Yes they do, after questioning myself about a flowering plant awash with bees in the day time, I went outside at night with a flashlight and there they all were, sleeping, no movement even when I “wiggled” the flowers, fast asleep! Still not moving the next morning at 6:30 am. 8 am all abuzz again!

madison fagnan
Reply

Do honey bees sleep? If they do it would be good to know that.

Nancy
Reply

Another reason to be up and outdoors early. If the days are sunny and nights are cool, it is no surprise to find bees asleep on sunflower, chicory, fall asters and ironweed. Seems if the temperature drops while it’s still light, and they aren’t finished foraging, they sleep where they are. Almost always, as they wake, they start foraging again before they fly away.

It’s just sad that if it drops too much, they may die away from the hive. It’s gotten back up in the 50s and 60s here this weekend, and they are out and about. I guess they are gathering water and propolis, but I did see one come in with teensy pollen baskets on! Brave girl!

Caryopteris
Reply

Bumblebees sleep on my flowers a lot. They really like flowers with flat tops, like Sedum spectabile ‘Neon’ Stonecrop, pentas, and spirea shrubs. All the bees have loved these the most, even more than coneflowers in my gardens.

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