From Our ArcHIVES - Part 1: Un-Bee-Lievable Facts About The Honeybee (Apis Mellifera)

Join us for a new trilogy delving into cognition and other cool facts about highly social insects.

It’s no surprise that here at PlantingSeeds we are simply buzzing about bees and all that they do for us. The team is constantly surprised and excited about their impact on biodiversity and food security.

We have always regarded honeybees as social insects that pollinate flowers. And yes, they are super important in this regard, however, they are not just little pollinator machines.

Their teeny-tiny brains are capable of impressive things such as telling the time, understanding the concept of zero and counting to 4 and sometimes beyond. Below, we go into further details on these incredible abilities and how researchers were able to identify these characteristics of the Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera). 

1. do you have the time?

This may seem very surprising but bees can tell the time. It was first recognised in the 1900’s by Swiss Physician and Naturalist August Forel who observed that bees would come every morning to his breakfast table to snack on his sweets. Over time this was built upon by Buttle-Reepen who recognised that bees would only visit a buckwheat field in the morning when the flowers secreted nectar. However this could be reflective of the communication system which exists between bees and not a sense of time. 

It was only in 1929 that Ingeborg Beling observed that Honeybees are able to identify time. The research was completed by having bees visit a feeding tray that was filled with sugar water at specific times of the day. It was revealed that bees would only visit during these hours and not at all outside of them, often arriving slightly early in anticipation of the food.  However the limitations were clear that this may not be because of an internal biological clock but rather due to external circumstances like where the sun was or radiation. So the experiment was repeated inside a salt mine to reduce these external events, and again it was seen that the punctuality of the bees was unchanged.

Again, it was thought that this could be influenced by the gravitation of the sun and moon so Maximilian Renner conducted an experiment whereby he trained bees in Paris and then transported them to New York. The idea being that if bees have an internal clock they won’t be impacted by the change of the external factors and will return to the feeding tray within exactly 24 hours after the last training. The experiment found that bees went to the food source exactly 24 hours later, indicating that bees do in fact have an internal biological clock and can create memories in relation to that internal clock. 

These memories then allow bees to know when pollen is most available; research has found that their food anticipatory action is both adaptable to external circumstances such as bad weather but also can switch quickly if the food source becomes poor. 

2. from zero to hero

According to a study published in the journal Science’ bees are capable of telling the difference between nothing and something, moreover they can place the zero at the base of a positive numerical sequence. This may be hard to believe, so in the next paragraphs we explain how a group of scientists designed an experiment to reach this conclusion.

The researchers showed a group of bees a screen with white cards, each of them showing five dark figures. Some of the bees were rewarded with a droplet of sugar water whenever they flew to the card showing the lowest amount of figures. Some others were rewarded when doing the opposite, flying towards the highest number of figures. After a long training day, researchers introduced a new level of difficulty: Cards with only one or no figures. Interestingly, bees were able to recognise the blank cards as the ones with the lowest number of figures. They were even faster at recognising these “zero” cards when compared to cards with four or five figures.

Bees are able to conceptualise numerical sequences, with zero as the lowest integer in the sequence. It however, remains unclear whether this knowledge is innate or comes with training.  This ability to count might prove useful when flying around a field full of flowers with different shapes (i.e. some with 5 petals, some with 10, etc.) and associating this to resource availability and preferences. 

3. 1,2,3,4…sometimes more!

Another impressive ability honeybees have is that they are capable of counting to 4. Again, a group of researchers designed a very cool experiment to find this out. This time, the experiment was done in Australia, at the University of Queensland so we get some national pride in the making of this. 

The experiment consisted of putting five specific landmarks inside a tunnel and placing sugar water in one of them. The honeybees were placed inside of the tunnel and were freed to fly around the tunnel until they discovered the marker with the food. The distance to the landmarks was altered frequently and randomly, while only keeping the number of intervening landmarks constant. Subsequently, the next time the same bees were released they would go to the same landmarker number disregarding if it had food or not. If they were trained to the second, third or fourth markers they would stick to these ones, showing their ability to count markers until finding the right one. However when introduced a fifth marker the bees would not be able to find it as the previous ones. Find a link for recent studies here.

Pictures of honeybees doing common behaviour such as visiting flowers for food collection and taking care of the brood. However, honeybees are capable of a wide range of impressive behaviours that we may not be as aware of. These highly social insects never stop surprising us. 

Even more impressive, recent studies have shown the capacity of honeybees in counting more than four, only as long as useful feedback is provided. Just like teaching a kid at school, positive reinforcement is necessary. Two groups were created, one that would only receive positive feedback (sweet sugary droplets of water) and one that would receive positive feedback (same droplets) but would also receive negative feedback (bitter liquid droplets) if they made the wrong choices. This time, the experiment consisted in showing the bees different shapes and patterns.  They would only earn a reward if they chose the patterns showing 4 shapes as opposed to others which showed numbers up to ten. The group that received only sweet droplet rewards were not able to successfully learn to discriminate between the number four and the higher numbers. However, the group that also received negative feedback were able to successfully tell the 4 shapes apart from the rest with higher numbers. So the ability to learn depended on this positive and negative feedback given to the bees.

Honeybees clearly have extensive capabilities far beyond what we would initially expect from these tiny insects. Likewise if you want to do some of your own research on the Honeybee take part in the B&B Highway’s project on CSIRO’s Atlas of Living Australia/Inaturalist and log your own observations or even go straight to the Atlas to see other nationwide observations.

In the coming weeks we will be doing deep dives into some of the other species of highly  social bees and their fun and quirky abilities. Keep an eye out for our next foray about the fluffy social bumble bees who are also capable of more than just pollinating your food and flowers. Stay tuned to learn more about these fascinating behaviours from our beloved little bees. 


Dacke, M., & Srinivasan, M. V. (2008). Evidence for counting in insects. Animal cognition, 11(4), 683-689.

Howard, S. R., Avarguès-Weber, A., Garcia, J. E., Greentree, A. D., & Dyer, A. G. (2019). Surpassing the subitizing threshold: appetitive–aversive conditioning improves discrimination of numerosities in honeybees. Journal of Experimental Biology, 222(19), jeb205658.

Howard, S. R., Avarguès-Weber, A., Garcia, J. E., Greentree, A. D., & Dyer, A. G. (2018). Numerical ordering of zero in honey bees. Science, 360(6393), 1124-1126.DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4975

Moore, D., Van Nest, B. N., & Seier, E. (2011). Diminishing returns: the influence of experience and environment on time-memory extinction in honey bee foragers. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 197(6), 641–651. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00359-011-0624-y

 Renner, M. (1960). "The contribution of the honey bee to the study of time-sense and astronomical orientation". Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. 25: 361–367. http://symposium.cshlp.org/content/25/361.full.pdf+html?fbclid=IwAR09TAHoDewT4F6QtXvlEmjNJr2CBMp61QJfam70U4KH009Rb2t6z81dwUQ