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 not everyone agrees. In fact, the British Beekeepers Association says honey bees sleep 5 to 7 hours per day, usually in the hive at night.
Bees seek forty winks
However, some bees sleep outside the hive too. For example, beekeepers and bee photographers the world over have reported seeing bees asleep in flowers, hanging from blades of grass, or sitting on a stone. The bees may remain stationary for hours, only to fly away when disturbed.
Honey bee authority Jürgen Tautz in his book The Buzz About Bees, tells us that foragers enter a pronounced state of sleep once darkness falls outside the hive. He describes the phenomenon like this:
“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 than foragers. Similar to human babies, young bees are fond of “cat naps.” Conversely, adult foragers have a sleep pattern that mimics a human adult, a night of long deep sleep. The adult pattern probably reflects the arduous demands of foraging.
Sleep patterns change with age
An article published in the Journal of Experimental Biology (2008) by Ada D. Eban-Rothschild and Guy Bloch entitled “Differences 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…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 easy to arose when the lights went on. But the older bees had a well-defined sleep pattern that the youngsters lacked.
Signs of a sleeping bee
Most researchers agree that honey bees show definite signs of sleep. Their legs are folded close to their body, their heads may lie directly on the “floor,” and the antennae are held still. Some bees may even fall over on their sides. Oddly, some wild species clamp on a plant with their mandibles and spend the night hanging. Others, like bumble bees, may nestle into a closed flower.
When people see a sleeping bee, they often think it is dead. I used to do that, too. But now I often give it a nudge, just to check. Sure enough, it usually flies away or begins to forage.
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 unusual and amazing naturally, so we don’t need to make up stuff. So get over it! Honey bees definitely sleep.
Honey Bee Suite