The antennae of a bee allows it to sense a variety of signals including chemicals, light, vibrations, and electric fields.

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The antennae of  bees serve the same purpose as a nose in humans; they’re filled with receptors for chemical odorants in the environment and help the bee smell the world.

The antennae of male bees are often much longer than their female counterparts. Male antennae have an extra segment and the segments themselves have more length. This is because male antennae are specialized to pick up the subtle scent of female pheromones. Some honeybee workers have been shown to smell their Queen from up to 60 meters away.

The receptors on the antennae are divided into 4 categories: plates, pegs, hairs and pits. Plates are receptors for chemicals and light, pegs and pits are for smelling and hairs for touch.  The arrangement of the sensors is very specific, with a tuft of hairs for feeling texture at the tip of the antennae and the majority of the receptors related to smell (known as pore plates) found on the last eight sub-segments. A male bee can have up to 100x the number of sensors on his antennae that a female can.

Another receptor, the Johnston’s organ, is found inside the antennae near the head. It detects movement and vibration around the antennae and has a variety of applications from allowing the bee to judge its speed, as well to detect electric fields. Bumblebees, for instance, can use the mechanoreceptors on their antennae to sense electric field strengths as small as 15.3 Vm-1.

This information is also available from the University of Calgary Invertebrate collection, where it was curated as part of a study on design inspired by bees. 

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The Bees of the World, Second Edition.Hopkins Fulfillment ServiceMichener CD.

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“When a virgin queen enters the congregation area, drones (from a few hundred to thousands) begin pursuit, first attracted to chemical cues but also using vision at closer range… Compared with worker bees, drones have larger antennae and about seven times as many placoid sensilla (≈18,000 compared with ≈2,700).” Wanner, 2007:14383

Journal article
A honey bee odorant receptor for the queen substance 9-oxo-2-decenoic acidPNASSeptember 4, 2007
Wanner KW, Nichols AS, Walden KKO, Brockmann A, Luetje CW, Robertson HM.

The Beekeeper's Handbook Cornell University PressSammataro D, Morse RA.

Journal article
Sensory allometry, foraging task specialization and resource exploitation in honeybees. Behav Ecol SociobiolRiveros AJ, Gronenberg W.

“Mechanosensory hairs are common across the Phylum Arthropoda (16). These sensors typically have mechanical resonances between 100 and 500 Hz and react to vibrations from the wingbeats of approaching predators (22) and air currents (23, 24). In contrast, bumblebee hairs have a resonant frequency of approximately 3.8 kHz, a result of low mass and high stiffness.” Sutton, 2016:7263

Journal article
Mechanosensory hairs in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) detect weak electric fields.PNASApril 26, 2016
Sutton GP, Clarke D, Morley EL, Robert D.

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Living System/s

Western HoneybeeApis melliferaSpecies

Buff-tailed BumblebeeBombus terrestrisSpecies

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