Honeybees use a two-stage inspection process to decide which flowers to feed from


Honeybees make many decisions when they are gathering nectar and pollen from flowers, such as which flowers to visit and how long to stay in a given area. In order to collect as much nectar as they can, bees learn about flowers and attempt to choose the best. The characteristics of flowers (such as their size) that they use will differ between plants, but there may also be similarities. Honeybees choose the lavender flower heads with the most florets and that are young. We studied whether this meant they were choosing the flower heads with most nectar.


Our results suggest that deciding which flower heads to visit is a process with two stages. First: fly around and decide which flowers to have a closer look at. Secondly: on the basis of the closer look, bees decide whether to land on a flowers and feed from it. Honeybees tended to have a closer look at flower heads that were the largest, but only visit flowers that had the most florets and were youngest. By measuring the amount of nectar produced overnight, we found that the flowers with the most nectar were the youngest ones with the most florets. These even had more nectar per floret, not just more in total. Bees apparently use the characteristics that enable them to find the most profitable flowers to visit.


The fact that bees inspected the largest flowers but then did not use this measure to decide whether to visit suggests that bee foraging appears to be constrained by their short eyesight. They are only able to judge the quality of the flower by looking from close-up. They are of course unlikely to be counting flowers but they must use the colours and patterns to decide. Once they have flown to the flower we might expect they might as well land on it. However, landing might be costly in terms of wasted time. Bees might look for signs of predators such as crab spiders. It is only worth visiting a flower and risking being killed if the rewards will be big enough. The size of flowers matters, which is why many species of plant produced large petal or flags to increase their apparent size at small cost. Such things might be also important for pollination in crop species, where traits such as petal size are not usually preferred by breeders.


Behavioural ecology

Subject Group

Zoology and Ecology




Posted by

Andrew Higginson

on Tue Aug 29 2017

Article ID


Details of original research article:

Higginson AD, Gilbert FS, Barnard CJ. Morphological correlates of nectar production used by honeybees. Ecological Entomology. 2006;31:269-276.

Preceded by:

Honeybees that get damaged wings become less choosy about the flowers that they visit

Posted by: Andrew Higginson Posted Tue Aug 29 2017

Followed by:

keywords: Predation

Bees avoid flowers that have signs of the presence of predatory spiders

Posted by: Andrew Higginson Posted Tue Aug 29 2017


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