Red skies are night, to a bee’s sight

Rose Campion

Rose campion from the site Cherry Gal

On a recent visit to George Washington’s house, we happened upon their annual plant sale. Not being one to pass up a pretty plant, especially one from President Washington’s very own garden, I picked up a couple Lychnis coronaria, commonly known as rose campion.

The plant intrigued me because the fuzzy leaves reminded me of the woolly leaves of lamb’s ear, a perennial we have around the yard. In early summer, the bumble bees are all over the lamb’s ear flowers, so I thought I would add the new plant to our little bee yard.

While rose campion is a perennial, it typically only lives for a year or two. The Missouri Botanical site says that the flowers readily reseed, so the plant tends to spread over time. Clipping the flowers can prevent such spreading.

160430 Rose Campion

My rose campion plants are a bit smaller than those shown in the prior picture.

While planting them yesterday, I realized that honey bees probably have little interest in these flowers. Bees cannot see red light, their vision covers the spectrum from ultraviolet to green. As the New Scientist puts it: “The complexity of the bee’s colour system is nevertheless comparable to human vision, since, like humans, they only have three colour receptors – for UV, blue and green, compared with the human set-up of blue, green and red.”

As a result, bees do not the colors yellow, orange, or red as we do, but they can see beyond the violet spectrum into ultraviolet light. So to a bee, a pure red flower would not have any color and would appear as black.

Flowers and bees have co-evolved to exploit this, as flowers looking to attract pollinators often have ultraviolet patterns that are invisible to humans. Here, for example, is an image of a daisy and a dandelion from the blog Photography of the Invisible World. The left image is what we normally see it, the middle shows ultraviolet light emitted by the flowers, and the final image is a simulation of how bees might see these flowers.

A daisy and a dandelion: as humans see them, in ultraviolet, and how bees might see them.

We’ll see how the plant does. If George can plant rose campion at Mount Vernon, I figure we can try it on our humble estate.

Red skies at night, sailors delight

Our title today comes from the proverb “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” There are some variations, and this has been said for shepherds instead of sailors.

The sentiment first appeared in the bible, where in Matthew 16:2-3 Jesus says “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’” While the color of the sky is generally not an accurate predictor of the next day’s weather, it must have been seen enough to be a common aphorism of the time.

My take on the quote captures the idea that bees cannot see red. A red sky for bees would be an absence of color, like the night sky. A bee would see a red rose campion flower as black.

This is my first attempt to write shorter but more frequent posts. Hopefully these are easier to both read and write. We’ll see if I do more than one.

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4 thoughts on “Red skies are night, to a bee’s sight

    • Yes, I wondered about this, although I couldn’t find a discussion or picture of the ultraviolet aspects of the flower online. It appears in some flowers for pollinators lists, so we’ll see if the butterflies or other bees visit.

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  1. My neighbor has rose campion, and it reseeds readily every year. I’ve never seen honey bees on it, though… Maybe too many other things are flowering at the same time in our neighborhood. It’s still a lovely plant, though, and the bumblies will definitely enjoy them.

    Liked by 1 person

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