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 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 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.