The Beehive Cluster (M44): 1000 Stars in Cancer’s Heart
The Beehive Cluster is one of the most famous deep-sky objects. It's an excellent object for beginner astronomers, which never gets boring, even after you become more experienced. From locating the cluster to fun educational facts, here you’ll get all the honey from this celestial beehive.
- The Beehive Cluster – M44, Praesepe, Messier 44
- The Beehive Cluster location
- When to see the Beehive Cluster in the sky in 2023?
- The Beehive Cluster fun facts
- Bottom line
The Beehive Cluster – M44, Praesepe, Messier 44
- Names and catalog designations: the Beehive Cluster, Praesepe, Messier 44, M44, NGC 2632, Cr 189
- Type: open star cluster
- Right ascension: 08 h 40 m 24 s
- Declination: 19° 40′
- Constellation: Cancer
- Apparent magnitude: 3.1
- Distance to the Earth: 577.4 ly
- Size: 500–600 solar masses
- Age: 600–700 million years
- Number of stars: >1,000
The Beehive Cluster is listed in the famous Messier Catalog as Messier 44 (or M44). It's the third-brightest Messier object after the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy and the second-closest deep-sky object in the catalog after the Pleiades.
M44 is an open cluster, which means its stars are loosely bound together and were born at about the same time from the same giant molecular cloud. The cluster is quite young in cosmic terms: it’s estimated to be 600-700 million years old, while our own Solar System, for example, formed about 4.6 billion years ago.
The Beehive Cluster location
How does the Beehive Cluster look?
The Beehive Cluster looks like a blurry patch of light to the naked eye in dark places without light pollution. And, with a little guidance, you may spot it even in less ideal conditions. To help you locate the Beehive Cluster, you can use stargazing apps like Sky Tonight and Star Walk 2.
The cluster spans 1.6° of the night sky, which is about the width of three Full Moons. It’s a perfect size to observe using a pair of binoculars. With decent binoculars, you can see around 20 stars within the cluster. But if you have access to a telescope, you’ll discover up to a thousand stars. The brightest stars in the Beehive Cluster have a visual magnitude of 6 to 6.5 and appear blue-white in color. Among them are scattered a few yellowish, cool, red giants visible through a telescope.
Where is the Beehive Cluster in the sky?
The Beehive Cluster is located in the “heart” of the constellation Cancer. The constellation itself is quite dim, but it lies between two distinct zodiac constellations: Leo to the east and Gemini to the west. To the north of the Beehive is the constellation Lynx, and to the south of the cluster is Canis Minor.
How can I find the Beehive star cluster?
There is an old-fashioned and modern way to find the Beehive star cluster in the sky. If you want to make it easier, use an astronomy app. Here is how to do it in a few steps with Sky Tonight:
- Type the name or a catalog designation of the cluster in the app’s search bar.
- Tap the blue target button next to the object’s name – the app will show the position of the Beehive Cluster in the sky map.
- Tap the blue compass button or simply point your device to the sky, then follow the white arrow to find the location of the cluster in the sky above you.
The more traditional way to find the Beehive Cluster is the so-called “star-hopping”. Here is how to do it:
- Start by finding the Big Dipper, the famous asterism of the constellation Ursa Major.
- Find the two stars – Megrez and Phecda – that make up the inner part of the Big Dipper’s bowl.
- Draw an imaginary line through the stars and extend it down until it meets the brightest star in that direction. Remember the location of this star – it’s Regulus in the constellation Leo.
- Now you need to find Pollux, one of the twin star brothers in the constellation Gemini. You may already know where it is in the sky – if so, skip to the last step of the instruction. If not, continue with us step by step.
- Go back to the Big Dipper and find another star in the asterism – the star Merak, which marks the outer bottom corner of the bowl.
- Draw an imaginary line from the star Megrez (the one in the upper inner part of the bowl) to Merak and extend it until it meets the bright star Pollux.
- Now connect bright Regulus to Pollux with an imaginary line. About halfway between the stars, you will find the Beehive Cluster.
Curious to explore the night sky further? Learn how to locate the most famous constellations with our colorful infographic.
When to see the Beehive Cluster in the sky in 2023?
The Beehive Cluster becomes visible in late February and climbs higher in the sky as the months go by. It disappears below the western horizon in late June but reappears in the eastern morning sky in late August. It’s a great target for amateur and professional stargazers, especially since it travels near the ecliptic, often encountering Solar System planets and the Moon. Here are some upcoming events featuring M44.
July 14: Mercury meets the Beehive Cluster
On July 14, at 22:33 GMT, the elusive planet Mercury (magnitude -0.7) will pass within a mere 0.2° of the Beehive Cluster (magnitude 3.1). You will find the objects together in the constellation Cancer. Look for them on the western horizon just after sunset.
The Beehive Cluster fun facts
First exoplanets around Sun-like stars were discovered in the Beehive Cluster
In September 2012, astronomers made an exciting discovery within the Beehive Cluster. They found two planets orbiting around two different stars within the cluster. The two planets were named Pr0201b and Pr0211b, and they both belong to the class of “hot Jupiters.” Hot Jupiters are gas giants that orbit very close to their stars.
This finding was particularly significant because it marked the first time exoplanets were detected orbiting a Sun-like star within a stellar cluster. In 2016, further observations revealed that there is not just one, but two planets in the Pr0211 stellar system. The additional planet was named Pr0211-c.
Ancient people imagined the cluster as a hive or a manger
The Beehive Cluster gets its popular name because this fuzzy patch of stars resembles a swarm of bees. The cluster’s other name is Praesepe, which means “manger” in Latin. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw this cluster as a manger where two donkeys (the stars Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis) were feeding. According to myth, the donkeys belonged to the gods Dionysos and Silenus, who rode them into battle against the Titans.
Deep-sky objects look like many different things, even to modern astronomers. Can you guess a nebula’s name from its image? Try our quiz!
The Beehive Cluster is an official state symbol
In 1996, the US State of Utah chose to designate the Beehive Cluster as an official state symbol. The reasoning behind this decision was that the cluster, which resembles a hive of stars, represented a cosmic version of Utah’s existing state symbol, the beehive. Utah is also known for its clear night skies, where the Beehive Cluster can still be seen with the naked eye. Notably, Utah also recognizes a state star: Dubhe.
M44 used to be the weather omen
In ancient times, Messier 44 was used to predict the weather. Pliny said, “If Praesepe is not visible in a clear sky it is a presage of a violent storm.” However, there was almost no light pollution in those days, and now we can see M44 with the naked eye only in dark places.
M44 doesn’t look like a Messier object
M44 is a bright object and was known long before Messier. So, it’s quite unusual that Charles Messier included it in his catalog, even though he typically focused on documenting faint objects that could be mistaken for comets. On the night of March 4, 1769, Messier made an exception and recorded the positions of three well-known objects: the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and the Beehive Cluster. This addition brought his catalog to a total of 45 entries, which he published for the first time in the Memoires de l'Academie. Why he added these objects is still a matter of speculation. One possible explanation is that Messier wanted to surpass the catalog of the astronomer Lacaille, who had listed 42 objects in 1755.
The Beehive Cluster, also known as M44, is a captivating open star cluster located in the constellation Cancer. It can be observed with the naked eye, particularly in dark areas without much light pollution. If you’re interested in finding it, there are helpful astronomy apps like Sky Tonight that can guide you to its location in the night sky. So why not make it your next stargazing adventure?