What Colors Are Bees and Wasps Attracted To?

Small bee on a purple colored clover blossom in the sun

Almost everyone has a favorite color. There are some colors we like and other colors we hate, but we usually have one or two colors that invariably conjure up certain emotions in us. The ability to associate color with feeling is an undeniably human experience. But is it limited to humans? In truth, color preferences aren’t even limited to mammals. Some insect species such as bees and wasps have distinct color preferences as well.

Color Is Often in the Mind Rather Than the Eye of the Beholder

It’s true that colors probably won’t spark the artistic fires of bees and wasps in the same way that they might for humans. Humans have a highly abstract view of the world. When we see objects we usually carry over a narrative to lay on top of it. We associate a wide variety of feelings with the shapes and colors around us.

For example, many people associate a combination of orange and black with Halloween. The end result is that when they see orange and black, they start to rekindle some of the feelings associated with Halloween. People seeing those colors might even start to find their stomach demanding candy and all the happy feelings associated with it.

Color Is Associated With What Every Living Being Finds Most Important

Close up group of bees on a yellow daisy flower

Wasps and bees aren’t that different. Their priorities are obviously a lot less complex. However, they too tend to associate various colors with their favorite foods. This is particularly true of bees. Bees are both social and heavily focused on flowers. They might not wax nostalgic when they see a color which reminds them of flowers, however, you can be sure that flowers are going to be on their minds when they see a color they associate with pollen. They might even head back to the hive to essentially rave about the amazing field of flowers they stumbled upon. However, this is where things become a little complicated for bees and humans alike.

Humans have more of an ability to separate color association from the evocative event. When people see orange and black they’re reminded of Halloween. When a bee sees colors it associates with flowers then it tends to think it’s seeing flowers. And in the case of human clothing it might even imagine that a woman in a red dress is an oddly huge, mobile and interesting flower.

A Flower by Any Other Name Will Still Attract a Bee

Bee flying and collecting nectar from blue flowers

Which colors are most prone to cause this sort of flower confusion in a bee? Any bee colony would speak with a united voice to answer that question. In general the vast majority of bees are highly attracted to blue and yellow. There’s a few different reasons for this preference. One of the major factors comes down to the earlier points of discussion. Bees tend to associate both blue and yellow with their favorite flowering plants. This color association has also lent itself to an evolutionary change over time.

A bee’s sense of vision is highly targeted toward its favorite food sources. The end result isn’t just that a bee is better able to appreciate blue and yellow than other colors. A bee is also able to see blue and yellow better than the other colors. One can think about a bee’s vision as somewhat similar to having the intensity of a certain color automatically increased.

With that in mind, it’s also important to remember that bees don’t entirely focus on a limited color range when they’re looking for flowers. This translates into their overall color preferences too. Bees love yellow and blue more than other colors. However, in general, they’ll take note of most bright colors which they associate with flowers. It’s also important to note the emphasis on bright colors.

Opposites Attract but Some Colors Will Always Repel

Honey bee macro, isolated on black background

Bees do have one other color that they take note of. Bees usually dislike dark colors. The closer something is to black, the less likely a bee is to like it. Part of this preference is due to the fact that black isn’t associated with a bee’s favorite flowers. This is the case for brown as well. However, a bee’s distaste for black goes beyond its inability to appreciate brown.

When a bee sees black, its little mind instantly thinks of some of the worst predators it’ll face in nature. Imagine if the worst day of your life happened within a building painted entirely in black. This is somewhat similar to how a bee reacts when it sees the color.

This isn’t enough to drive off a bee, however, black does tend to make bees more apprehensive, wary or even aggressive than they might be in other circumstances.

A Look Into How the Bee’s Less Friendly Cousin Sees the World

Sharp closeup of wasp head on light blue background

You might wonder how a bee’s closest relatives relate to colors. Many people are surprised to find that bees are genetic cousins to a much more intimidating creature. Go back far enough into the evolutionary record and you will see wasps and bees diverge from the same family tree.

It’s true that this happened quite some time ago. In fact, bees diverged from wasps about 130 million years ago. To give some scale, dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago. But despite all this time, a bee and wasp will often have more in common than one might imagine. The two family lines have diverged, but they’re often called cousins for a reason.

Wasps Have a Similar History and Similar Aversion

Take color aversion for example. Wasps have a similar aversion to the color black that we’ve seen in bees. The reasons are quite similar as well. The type of animals which don’t mind risking a bee sting typically don’t mind incurring the wrath of a wasp either.

A Wasp Carries on a Tradition of Artistic Appreciation

Close photo of wasp eating a white grape

Wasps might not have the same appeal to humans that bees bring with them. People draw elaborate metaphors about bees such as “the birds and the bees”. When wasps come up in conversation it’s usually with a much more antagonistic air. However, wasps have a similar appreciation for bright and beautiful colors as bees. The underlying reasons remain the same even though the wasp and bee’s bodies have diverged over time.

A Peculiar Case of Color Blindness

It’s clear that wasps share a lot with their cousin the bee when it comes to artistic taste. Wasps do bring one big difference along with them. It’s not a color they like. Nor is it a color they hate. It’s a color they’re entirely apathetic about. Wasps just don’t care about the color red.

This color preference is often a surprise to people who associate red with anger. Other people might think of bullfighters and their red capes when the subject of animalistic rage comes up in conversation. However, in reality, a wasp is totally oblivious to the color red. The color red sits outside of a wasps range of vision. This means that it’ll usually fly right on past anything red. The only caveat is that as red darkens, it begins to become more visible to wasps. Eventually a deep red turns into that black color which both bees and wasps simply don’t care for.

Color wheels illustrating normal vision and protanopia color blindness in wasps

In the End Color Is a Universal

Much of this can be summed up by saying that wasps and bees both like all bright colors other than red. Red being, of course, loved by bees but generating nothing but apathy in wasps.

There’s another lesson to take from these interesting insects though. These color preferences show just how important the artistry of nature is to every living being. Humans and other mammals have tremendous differences from insects. However, every living being is a part of nature. And every living being with the ability to see color will use it as a means of communication with the world. By understanding more about color, we understand more about most of the living creatures around us.