The Beehive Cluster (Messier 44): 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.

Contents

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 stars

The Beehive Cluster consists of about 1,000 stars. Most of its brightest stars are concentrated in the central region, while the fainter ones form the outer halo. The members of the cluster exhibit a wide range of spectral types, ranging from F0 to M5. Notably, about 70% of the stars are M-class red dwarfs, while only about 2% are the brightest blue-white A-class stars with magnitudes between 6 and 6.5. Epsilon Cancri (ε Cnc) stands out as the brightest star in the Beehive Cluster with a magnitude of 6.3.

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.
How to find the Beehive Cluster with Sky Tonight
With Sky Tonight, you can find the location of the Beehive 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.
The Beehive Cluster Location
In the sky, you can find the Beehive Cluster with the help of the Big Dipper, Pollux, and Regulus.

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When to see the Beehive Cluster in the sky?

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.

March 20, 2024: Moon near the Beehive Cluster

On March 20, at 08:03 GMT (4:03 a.m. EDT), the Moon and the Beehive star cluster will share the same right ascension. The apparent distance between the two objects will be 3°48'. Our natural satellite will be 80% illuminated, and the cluster will have a magnitude of 3.1. The star cluster will be visible near the Moon until sunrise. Observe the objects with a pair of binoculars.

April 16, 2024: Moon near the Beehive Cluster

On April 16, at 14:45 GMT (10:45 a.m. EDT), the Moon and the Beehive star cluster will share the same right ascension. The two objects will be separated by 3°48'. Our natural satellite will be 59% illuminated, while the cluster will shine at a magnitude of 3.1. You can see the pair until the morning. If you have binoculars, use them to get a better look.

May 13, 2024: Moon near the Beehive Cluster

On May 13, at 22:47 GMT (6:47 p.m. EDT), the Moon and the Beehive star cluster will be 3°42' apart in the sky. Our natural satellite will be 32% illuminated, while the cluster will shine at a magnitude of 3.1. The objects will be visible until sunrise. While you can spot them with the naked eye, using binoculars will make the view even better.

June 10, 2024: Moon near the Beehive Cluster

On June 10, at 07:34 GMT (3:34 a.m. EDT), you'll find the Moon and the Beehive star cluster 3°24' apart in the sky. The Moon will be a thin waxing crescent, only 17% illuminated, while the Beehive cluster will shine at a magnitude of 3.1. You'll be able to observe the objects until the early morning. While you can spot them with the naked eye, using binoculars will make the view even better.

July 6, 2024: Mercury near the Beehive Cluster

On July 6, at 21:12 GMT (5:12 p.m. EDT), the planet Mercury (mag -0.2) will meet the Beehive star cluster (mag 3.1) — the objects will pass within a mere 0°6' from each other. You can see them in the sky for about an hour after sunset. The objects will be visible to the naked eye, but you can use binoculars or a small telescope for a more detailed view.

July 7, 2024: Moon near the Beehive Cluster

On July 7, at 16:04 GMT (12:04 p.m. EDT), the Moon and the Beehive star cluster will be 3°18' apart in the sky. The Moon will be just one day past the New Moon phase and will be only 2.5% illuminated, so you won't be able to see it with the naked eye. The Beehive Cluster will shine at a magnitude of 3.1. Try to catch a glimpse of the pair with binoculars. Also, enjoy the view of Mercury shining nearby.

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.

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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.

Messier 44: Conclusion

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?

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