A popular idiom from the previous century has made some wonder if bees do, in fact, have knees. Bees indeed have knees, however, it doesn’t function in the same way that humans’ knees do.
Where Does the Phrase “The Bee’s Knees” Come From?
When the phrase “the bee’s knees” first found its way into our vernacular, it had the opposite meaning of what it came to mean many years later. It was first used in the 18th century among tradesmen who would send their apprentices to fetch something that didn’t really exist – kind of like a prank. Soon after, it evolved to mean something that just wasn’t very significant.
There are some who say the idiom originated as an allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the protagonist contemplates killing King Duncan of Scotland in order to assume the throne. In one line, Macbeth suggests that the blow “Might be the be-all and the end-all.” Be-all and end-all was also known as the “B’s and E’s”, which sort of sounds like the bee’s knees. However, there doesn’t seem to be too much support for this explanation.
But it was during the 1920s when the idiom took on its current meaning. It was at that time when slang phrases like the “cat’s meow” and the “bee’s knees” began popping up in conversations. It was just a quirky way to express that something was really great or fantastic, sort of like how we used to say “super” some years back or “cool” more recently.
However, it appears as though these phrases really had nothing to do with the animal’s anatomy or behaviour; they were just fun things to say.
Do Bees Have Knees?
As “the bee’s knees” became a more mainstream phrase, people began to wonder if bees really did have knees. In fact, they do – even though they are not technically called knees. Bees have six legs, and each of those six legs includes a joint between the femur and tibia, known as a knee. So one knee per leg equals a total of six knees per bee. But bee’s knees don’t function the same way as human’s do.
What Is the General Structure of a Bee?
Bees have three major body parts encased in an exoskeleton – a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Each of these larger parts includes smaller body parts that have specific functions:
- Includes sensory antennae, three simple eyes (ocelli), and two compound eyes. The compound eyes allow bees to see polarized light.
- Mouthparts, including the mandibles that act like jaws, the glossa that is officially known as the “tongue”, and the parts that function like lips – the labrum and maxillae. Even though there is a mouthpart called a tongue, there is another part called the proboscis that is responsible for collecting nectar.
- There are two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs attached to the thorax.
- Each leg has six segments (femur, tibia, coxa, trochanter, basitarsus, and tarsus), and each pair of legs has a different function.
- The front legs are used for cleaning the antennae.
- The middle legs are for walking and packing the pollen basket on the hind legs.
- The hind legs contain the pollen basket and other parts that are specialized for worker bees.
- Spiracles are tiny holes that help the bee breathe.
- More spiracles
- Multiple parts (too many to name) that are responsible for digestion and reproduction.
- Wax and scent glands – only in workers
- Stinger – only in the queen and worker
How Does a Bee’s Knee Function?
The individual sections of the bee’s legs are connected by joints, and the joint between the femur and the tibia is known as the femorotibial joint. On these particular joints, bees have hairs that are used in collecting pollen.
Although a piece published in a popular Tech magazine featured a description of a bee pressing pollen into pellets using its knee, it’s actually the joint between the tibia and basitarsus that serves as the pollen press. The bee’s “knee” doesn’t have any special function but it does work in concert with the other segments of the leg to move pollen along. The best that can be said about the knee is that it contributes to the pollen harvesting process.
What Are the Similarities Between Human Knees and Bees Knees?
There are two distinct similarities between a bee’s knee and a human’s knee. Both human and bee knees bend in the same kind of way. Furthermore, both bees and humans have a joint with a similar sounding name, called tibiofemoral in humans and femorotibial in bees.
But the human knee also has another joint called the patellofemoral, which connects the femur to the patella (known as the kneecap in humans). The human knee supports body weight while allowing movements essential to everyday living.
Whereas the knee joints in a human are crucial for performing many of the leg movements necessary for our survival as a species, the bee relies mostly on its wings to get from place to place and flower to flower.
Why Do Ground-Nesting Bees Have Bare Knees?
Ground-nesting bees are diggers. They must burrow into the soil to create the tunnels they use to lay their eggs. While they are digging, they use their legs to create leverage against the edges of the tunnel. This could be why these kinds of bees appear to have bare spots where their knees would be.
It is possible that all of that friction tears the hairs away from their knees, but some researchers have questioned whether or not ground-nesting bees had any hairs on their knees in the first place.