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Nature Notebook – Honeybee Tongue

Hand in hand with the appearance of spring flowers honeybees will be collecting the nectar of those flowers. The structure that facilitates the collection, the proboscis, is another of nature’s engineering marvels.

The bee’s proboscis is similar to that of the butterfly. The main structure is a tube through which nectar is pulled by the suction action of an internal pump. The tube is formed from parts of its maxillae (just behind the mandibles) and a lower mouthpart called the labium.

Unlike the butterfly, however, the bee’s proboscis is a temporary construction. When it has finished feeding, the parts separate and pivot into their respective “storage” spots.

The bee also uses a hairy tongue to gather liquids. The muscles at the base of the tongue surround a hollow cavity. When the bee extends its tongue these muscles act on the cavity to create suction. The bee also moves its hairy tongue back and forth. The liquid is wicked up by capillary action through the hairs into a narrow channel that leads to the mouth.