bumblebee faces

I love watching the bumblebees work the milkweed flowers.  They are so systematic in the way that they probe into each chamber of the flower, moving along using their front legs to separate the chambers and dipping an antenna in occasionally to check for scents left by other foraging bees.  On a recent morning, I got up in the bumblebee’s face with my macro lens while the bee probed the flowers, hoping to catch the action of their tongues as they lapped up the sticky syrup.

This bee looks like it is sitting down while sipping.

This bee looks like it is sitting down while sipping.  Head, legs and thorax are intensely black — but I’ve lightened them up considerably here so you can actually see the different body parts.  Both the tongue sheath and one antenna are inserted into one of the floral chambers of a swamp milkweed flower.

Bumblebees use their tongue, which extends from that long sheath, to mop up nectar at the base of a flower.  Generally, the larger the bee, the longer its tongue is, which allows bees of different sizes to specialize on differently shaped flowers.


The cartoon illustrates the tongue extending from the hard maxillary sheath.  Although the tongue appears “hairy”, the tip is really a mass of fine capillary tubes that suck up nectar as the tongue is dipped in and out of the sugar source.


Here the bee has pulled the tongue sheath out of the flowers but not far enough to actually see the extended tongue itself.

I’ve always been curious about how bees “decide” whether a given patch of flowers is worth an investment of their time to probe for nectar.  Bumblebees (and perhaps a variety of other bees as well) mark the flowers on which they have spent considerable time foraging (i.e., rich nectar reward) with a scent that indicates it has already been tapped.  As the scent decays over time, presumably the nectar reward builds up again, resulting in more visits from foraging bees.

Head on view -- you can see the ocelli above the compound eyes.

Just opened milkweed flowers, like the one at bottom center, with their pollen sacs still in place, are better bets for higher nectar rewards.  And clumps of flowers on a plant or clumps of plants of the same species are better bets for finding nectar sources, so bumblebees will search such large patches until they fail to reap some minimal reward — and then move on.

I never did get a good look at the mop end of that long tongue, but I certainly have a new appreciation for bumblebee faces.


8 thoughts on “bumblebee faces

    • Thanks, Kathy. I really enjoy macro shots for those close-up details. Insect anatomy is fascinating, and I really know little about it.

  1. Outstanding photos, Sue. Is that the infamous Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS?
    I just ordered a camera (not the Canon) to get sharper close ups of bees, but I want to get video of them. Can your macro take sharp video too?

    • Thanks! My macro lens is a Tamron 90 mm f 2.8. It’s super sharp, especially when I used a tripod (these shots were hand-held though). I’ve never tried it with video, but I think as long as the camera takes good video, the lens should work fine. The trouble with a macro video is the depth of field (focus) is so narrow that your subject would be constantly be going in and out of focus. It might be better to use a good telephoto instead.

  2. After much research and frustration over my blurry macro videos, I’ve ordered a Sony handycam hdr cx 330 tele-macro camera. I’ve looked all over the web for macro bee videos, but have not seen many. Those that I have seen, take the bee off the flower, refrigerate it for a short time, and shoot it in the studio…not something I aspire to. This camera is really not expensive (like the Canon with macro). If it works I’ll let you know. If it doesn’t, you’ll never hear from me again. (Just kidding) What I’d like is some sharp video at about 1:1. My little pocket Sanyo pocket camera is good when it decides to come into focus, but all too often, it’ll stay blurry until the bee flies away.

    After looking at your photos again, I’d like to say again…Very nice photography!

    • Hi Pat,
      Your video on July 9 blog post was terrific, and I thought the macro video of the honeybees turned out great. Good luck with the new Sony. I look forward to seeing more of your garden filmed with it.

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