Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

The Beehive cluster: A swarm of 1,000 stars

Beehive cluster: Dots and lines in an upside down Y shape, with 2 extra dots upper right and 1 extra dot lower left.
Look for the Beehive cluster between the Gemini stars Castor and Pollux and the star Regulus in Leo.

Although it’s one of the 12 zodiacal constellations, Cancer the Crab is so faint that you’d likely never notice it … except for the lovely star cluster in its midst. This cluster is commonly known as the Beehive, or M44. An older name is Praesepe (manger or crib in Latin). In fact, the Beehive is a wonderful swarm of stars, glimpsed with the eye alone in a dark location. You can also see it easily in binoculars. Its size is 1.5 degrees, or three full-moon diameters. Although the eye can’t detect them all, it contains some 1,000 stars.

How to see the Beehive star cluster

First, look for Regulus, and the Gemini stars Castor and Pollux, because they’re your guide stars to the Beehive star cluster. Then you’ll find the Beehive star cluster about halfway between Regulus and the Castor-and-Pollux pair.

So, in March, look in the east after dark. You’ll probably see Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, rather close to the eastern horizon. Then the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini will catch your eye higher up in the eastern sky.

As the months pass, the Beehive will climb higher in the evening sky. Finally, it will disappear from the western evening sky in late June, and will return to the eastern morning sky starting around late August.

You’d think that an object with so many names – NGC 2632, M44, Praesepe, Beehive – would be bright. But only in dark country skies can you see this faint fuzzy object with the unaided eye. However, binoculars magically transform this smudge of light into a glittery swarm of stars.

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Star field with a loose cluster of stars at center.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | David Hoskin in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, captured this image on February 12, 2023. David wrote: “Messier 44 is a large, bright open star cluster in the constellation Cancer. It is also known as the Beehive cluster or Praesepe, which is Latin for crib. The cluster consists of about 1,000 gravitationally bound stars.” Thank you, David!

The Beehive’s 1,000 stars

There are approximately 1,000 stars in the beautiful Beehive cluster, which is an open cluster of stars in our galaxy. Open clusters are stars that are gravitationally bound and are created out of the same star-forming nebula, such as the stars in the Orion Nebula. The Beehive is one of the nearest open clusters to our sun and Earth. It has a larger population of stars than most other nearby clusters.

The Beehive’s distance is about 577 light-years from our solar system. The cluster shines at magnitude +3.7. If you use binoculars to see the Beehive, the brightest star you are seeing is 42 Cancri.

Planets in the Beehive star cluster

Becky Smethurst of University of Oxford discusses Messier 44 and the discovery of planets around stars in the open cluster.

In 2012, astronomers found two planets in the Beehive. The planets orbit two different stars. The planets’ designations are Pr0201b and Pr0211b. Both of these planets are hot Jupiters, that is, massive gas giants, in both cases orbiting very close to their stars. These two were the first planets astronomers detected orbiting stars like our own sun that were situated in an open star cluster. Since their discovery, Kepler has found four more possible exoplanets orbiting stars in the Beehive.

Featureless planet with sunlike star and scattered stars in background.
Artist’s concept of a gas giant planet in the Beehive star cluster. All around, the stars of the Beehive cluster shine brightly in the dark. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

History and mythology of the Beehive cluster

As early as the second century C.E., Ptolemy wrote that the Beehive star cluster was:

… the nebulous mass in the breast of Cancer.

In ancient times, people used the cluster as a weather predictor. Pliny said:

If Praesaepe is not visible in a clear sky, it is a presage of a violent storm.

Galileo had the first telescopic view of the Beehive in 1609. With his paper tube and two pieces of glass, he was able to detect 40 stars.

Around 1769, Charles Messier added the cluster to his famous catalog of nebulous objects. Hence the designation M44: the 44th object in Messier’s catalog.

The Beehive star cluster was a manger in Greek and Roman mythology. You might notice two bright stars on either side of the cluster with your binoculars, or you might see them with the unaided eye in dark skies. These two stars are Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. In starlore, they represent the donkeys that Dionysus and Silenus rode into battle against the Titans.

Antique etching of large red crab on star chart sprinkled with black stars of constellation.
Cancer the Crab from Urania’s Mirror, an antique set of constellation cards. Image via Wikipedia.

Bottom line: The Beehive cluster is an open cluster that lies near the center of the constellation Cancer the Crab. Additionally, it goes by many names, including Praesepe and M44.

March 7, 2024
Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

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