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Here's Why Birds and Bees Can See More Colors Than Humans

Plus, what's on the scientific horizon for one day expanding our rainbow spectrum. 

bee on purple flower with pollen
Photography by: picture alliance / Getty

If you've ever found yourself in awe of nature's colors—a clear blue day, the budding daffodils in your gardenthe farmer's market's rich leafy greens—consider this: You may not even be seeing all of it. That's because the human eye can actually only detect a selected range of colors. This range runs from what we commonly deem the first color of the rainbow (red) and the last (violet). Bees and birds, on the other hand, are able to detect an entirely expanded world of color, according to Helen Czerski, Everyday Physics columnist for The Wall Street Journal

 

How is that possible? As you may already know, humans see colors by detecting their wavelengths (reds being the longest and violets being the shortest). However, as Czerski explains, because the human eye isn't capable of seeing each shade individually, we group them into three categories. "Our eyes have three types of cone cell that respond to different colors—red, green, and blue," she writes. "Our brain figures out how much of the light that we see falls into each category and it recombines that information to construct the myriad colors that we register."

 

RELATED: The Best Plants for Attracting Bees and Other Pollinators to Your Garden

 

Similarly, bees and birds also group their colors into three categories; however, instead of red, they see ultraviolets, a range of hues that the human eye cannot detect. For bees, these super-vision abilities—which make the center of flowers appear as a darker hue—can help them quickly and efficiently find nectar-filled flowers to feed on

 

Wishing humans could tap into nature's entire array of colors? It might be possible before you know it. As Czerski suggests, scientists could soon begin exploring the possibilities of splitting the color spectrum into tinier and tinier slices, also called hyperspectral imaging. Doing so could reveal hundreds more categories of color, not only helping researchers use this as a valuable tool in examining the livelihood of plants at a molecular level, but may also open up a whole new world for how we experience colors everyday. Talk about going over the rainbow!