Hidden Patterns: How a Bee Sees the World of Flowers


Humans are interesting creatures. We look at the world with some of the most advanced eyes and minds, but often fail to realize that others see the world differently than we do. While this idea is often put forward when talking about the way other people experience the world, in this case I’m literally talking about vision, and insects like bees in particular.

In the vast electromagnetic spectrum of wavelengths (extending from below the long wavelengths used for radio, to the short wavelengths of gamma radiation) we humans see only a miniscule fraction that we call visible light. This small sliver, spanning the distance between violet and red is the way we perceive the world around us with our eyes. However bees and other insects have a different view of the world. Their whole range of light is shifted further towards the violet end of the spectrum and further from the red. This means that, while they can’t perceive red, they see colors we simply cannot see – what we call ultra-violet. This also means is that bees see a world literally hidden before our eyes.

Dr. Klaus Schmitt of Weinheim, Germany has spent the last 10 years photographing nature with special cameras, lenses and filters that simulate the world as seen by the bee and other insects. What we find through his revealing images is that it looks surprisingly different – especially when flowers are concerned. On flowers we humans would consider unremarkable, like the plain yellow Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Apache beggarticks (Bidens ferulifolia) shown here, bold discs of color show up that we could never see with our own vision – but bees can.

On many flowers featured on Dr. Schmitt’s site, we can see runway or target-like patterns that guide bees in to land, right on the exact spot where they store their honey and pollen. In the beautiful symbiotic win-win relationship between flowers and bees (where the flowers provide the bee with food in the form of honey and pollen, and the bee pollenates flowers of the same type when it lands on them), these markings help guide a process which is mutually beneficial. (article continues below)

(Above: Bidens ferulifolia transitions from human to bee vision)

Visual light shot of Rudbeckia fulgida – © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu
Dr Klaus Schmitt Bee Vision Flower Photography 1

Simulated bee vison of Rudbeckia fulgida – © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu
Dr Klaus Schmitt Bee Vision Flower Photography 2

Just as surprising is how those patterns showed up on flowers in the first place: it was with the bees help. Just like dog breeders select their breeding stock for certain characteristics, say for increasingly bold black spots on a Dalmatian, bees have been slowly selecting flowers which show more boldly attractive patterns. Over a process of millions of years, bees have been attracted to the flowers which look and smell the most attractive. Thus, as those flowers have had their pollen spread the most frequently, their patterned traits have been proliferated through the plant world – even if we humans can’t see them.

Dr Schmitt, who provided the content, and media artist Robin Noorda will be showing a beautiful short film called Insecta Spectra during the Tropisme exhibit at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world (see the unmissable preview here). Be sure to stop by Dr Schmitt’s excellent and well researched website uvir.eu, where you can peak into the world of bees and butterflies. (all images used with permission)

Rudbeckia fulgida transitions from human to bee vision – © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu

Visual light shot of Bidens ferulifolia – © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu
Dr Klaus Schmitt Bee Vision Flower Photography 3

Simulated Bee Vision of Bidens ferulifolia (special filter, UV->Blue, Green, Red) – © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu
Dr Klaus Schmitt Bee Vision Flower Photography 4

All images used with permission: © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu

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