Do bees sleep?

Each week, we ask you to share your questions about farming, food or Sacrewell with us on Facebook. The person who writes the best question wins a free tractor ride for a child and accompanying adult, as well as having their question answered on our website. This question came from Tammy Fitzohn’s four year old.

Yes they do!

When bees fall asleep, a bee’s legs start to flex and it brings its head to the floor. The antennae stops moving and if a bee is really tired it sometimes fall over sideways. Many bees held each other’s legs as they slept, or the legs are folded beneath the body.

Honeybees sleep between five and eight hours a day. But the sleep pattern depends on their age and their role.

A forager bee tends to sleep in day-night cycles like we do, with more sleep at night when darkness prevents their excursions for pollen and nectar. That foragers sleep in obvious patterns probably indicates the huge physical demand that foraging places on them. They mainly sleep in the hive, but occasionally they will fall asleep in flowers only to fly away when disturbed.

Young bees sleep for shorter periods, and not in the day-and-night rhythm so often seen in foragers. In a study conducted by Eban-Rothschild and Block (2008) which describes the different sleep patterns seen in young bees versus foragers;  the youngsters moved back and forth between light, medium and deep sleep even when it had looked as if they were about to wake up. Once foragers wake in the morning they remain active until sunset, but the youngsters only woke for several hours at a time before dozing off again. The older bees had a well-defined sleep pattern that the youngsters lacked. Here’s another video of bees and their sleep patterns:

But why do bees sleep?

A tired bee can’t communicate properly when giving other bees direction to a food source. This means that if the bees are sent off in the wrong direction for the food, they waste time and energy.

Sleep-deprived honeybees find it difficult to return to the hive when visiting new flower patches. The bees then spend more time figuring out how to get home, or get lost permanently.

Bees needs sleep to consolidate memories too, just like humans. Without a good night’s sleep, then, honeybees start to forget the activities that should be second nature to them. Learning is reinforced during deep-sleep, just like we would expect in humans.