bee biology

Keeping antennae shiny and clean with a built-in antenna cleaner

All bees have an antenna cleaner on each of their two forelegs. The antenna cleaners are made of two parts: a notch in the basitarsus, which is fitted with stiff hairs, and a corresponding spur on the tibia. According to Mattingly (2013) “To use the antenna cleaner, the [bee] raises her foreleg over her antenna and then flexes her tarsus. This action allows the spur to close the notch and form a ring around the antenna.”

Antennae have many functions

The bee pulls each antenna through the bristles to clean it of debris such as pollen or dust which might interfere with the many sensory organs within the antenna. According to Caron and Connor (2013) “Antennae smell, taste, perceive humidity and temperature, feel, monitor gravity and flight speed and even detect sound waves to help guide the bee in her daily activities.” Considering their importance, you can see why bees have to keep their antennae spit-shined and polished.

The little bee in the photo is a male Halictus rubicundus. I watched him sip nectar and then raise up on his hind legs and pull each antenna through the cleaners several times before flying off to the next flower. He repeated this pre-flight ritual between every blossom. These bees have long antennae, so it was easy to see even though the bee is quite small.



Halictus rubicundus preparing for take-off. Photo © Rusty Burlew.


  • “Easy to see…” modestly shrugs the amateur photographer, who proceeds to capture it in a razor-sharp image. NOT easy to produce a photo this clear.
    Next time I see a bee doing this, I’ll watch closer and understand better.

  • Absolutely remarkable! Fantastic photo, too!
    Were you the one that published the photo of the bee exuding wax from its body? Your site is so informative and fascinating for this backyard beekeeper of ONLY six years!! So much to learn! Many thanks.

  • Thank you Rusty, in a post you said following:

    “This floored me. After all, what part of a sweat bee isn’t a bee? At first I thought he didn’t know a bee when he saw one. But gradually it dawned on me that, in his mind, “bee” meant “honey bee.” He meant to say, “Show me a honey bee doing that and I’ll give you extra credit.” I think.”hope.:”

    So is it a honey bee or just a bee? I want to clear my understanding that honey bee does not cleat their antennae!

    thank you

    • I’m sorry for the confusion. All bees clean their antennae constantly. The antennae have sensors for feeling, and smelling, and tasting—all things which help the bee navigate through the world. Because they are so important, they have to be kept immaculately clean.

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