We have explored many parts of the honeybee’s anatomy previously on this blog, but we have only briefly mentioned the tongue. Today we share some fascinating hot-off-the-press info about the honey bee tongue.

New studies by researchers in Germany and China reveal that the honeybee has a tongue with stiff and hydrophobic hairs.

When you consider how honeybee foragers spend so much time pollinating flowers, and foraging for liquid foods like nectar, it makes sense that the honeybee’s tongue has an unusual and segmented surface covered with dense hairs.

Honeybees use their tongues to exploit every possible liquid they can find that fits their needs, so it is surprising that their tongue surface is hydrophobic. This is probably the result of evolution over a very long period of time.

There is a series of ring-like segments on the bee's tongue. Each one is bristling with 16 to 20 hairs. The honeybee diet means that they collect sap, flower nectar, fruit juice, and salt water.

This unrelated 4:20-minute video by Life Zoomed In takes a closer look at the honey bee tongue and the stinger:



A worker bee’s success and survival depend on her ability to exploit these resources. The surface properties of the tongue have a lot to do with success or failure. It is necessary for the bee to interact with a wide range of surfaces as she engages with flowers, tree bark, rotting fruit, damp soil, and much more.

Scientists had not previously studied the surface qualities of the tongue as much as the structure and motion of the hairs.

In this new study, Jianing Wu, a Sun-Yat-Sen University researcher, along with colleagues, studied honeybee tongue hairs by using microscopy, high-speed videography, and computational modeling.

This technology revealed that the individual hairs are stiff and hydrophobic, unlike the ring segments, which are soft and hydrophilic. This contrast prevents the hairs from sticking to and stiffening the tongue once it starts bending, so it can bend further to get into crevices and reach food. The stiffness of the hairs enhances their durability, so the bee can use its tongue millions of times in its lifetime.

There are many ways these findings may inspire the design of new materials.

To read the research and see some images, click here.

The study appears in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Jiangkun Wei et al. Enhanced Flexibility of the Segmented Honey Bee Tongue with Hydrophobic Tongue Hairs. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, published online March 8, 2022; doi: 10.1021/acsami.2c00431