5-19-22 The urban beekeeping boom is hurting wild pollinator species
The recent global trend for urban apiary amounts to "bee-washing" that detracts from efforts to reverse the decline in wild pollinators, argues Graham Lawton. DURING one of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 – it must have been the first, as we were spending a lot of time sunbathing in the garden – one of my neighbours started keeping bees. He would emerge from his back door wearing the full get-up and fumigate the hive before examining the interior for honey. We live in London, so barely knew him, and he never offered us a jar of honey, but it was an entertaining spectacle that gave us some cheer on those dreary days. I didn’t know it then, but my neighbour was part of a global trend. London, along with Berlin, New York, Paris, Zurich and many other cities, has seen a huge rise in urban beekeeping in recent years. I was all for it: we live in a gritty part of town where any sort of rewilding is welcome. My wife and I discussed taking up beekeeping too, or at least making our little garden more bee-friendly with a few bee hotels or more flowers. We didn’t do any of these things, and I am relieved that we didn’t. Because, although urban beekeeping feels like it must be making a positive contribution to nature conservation by helping to reverse the pollinator decline, the truth is rather different. Far from helping, it can actually do harm. To understand why, it is important to recognise that the domesticated bees we keep in hives – the European or western honeybee (Apis mellifera) – isn’t remotely endangered and doesn’t need saving. What do need saving are the hundreds of other species – many of them bees, but also butterflies, hoverflies, moths, beetles, bats and birds – that also provide vital pollination services. Many of these wild pollinators are in a worrying decline across the world. However, their city-dwelling populations are surprisingly healthy. Bee species richness has been found to be higher in urban areas than in surrounding farmland, and bumblebees also thrive better in cities. This is largely due to the fact that cities contain a wide variety of bee-friendly habitats with relatively low use of pesticides and copious blooms of wild and garden flowers: parks, gardens, allotments, cemeteries, railway verges, campuses and more.
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us the complex lives of these amazing little creatures.
How the bee colony works and bees work together.
Tales from the Hive
Bees: Tales from the Hive (2007) - 54 minutes
Bees: Tales from the Hive at Amazon.com
Amazingly up-close footage filmed with specially developed micro lenses brings you the most intimate--and most spectacular--portrayal of a working bee colony ever filmed. It's not frightening--it's fascinating. See things you never imagined. Hear things only bees hear. Discover new-found facts about the strange and complex life of bees.
Have you ever seen the high-speed mid-air "wedding flight" of a drone and his queen? Do you know how a bee colony defends itself from honey-loving bears? Did you know it takes nectar from 10 million flowers to create a single liter of honey? No wonder they're called worker bees! Bees: Tales from the Hive exposes a bee colony's secret world--detailing such rarely-seen events as the life-or-death battle between a pair of rival queens, a bee eater's attack on the hive, and a scout bee's mysterious dance that shares special "nectar directions" with the rest of the hive.
5-17-22 Beekeepers are struggling to keep up with farms' pollination needs
As demand for crops grows, the pollination services provided by the honeybees managed by beekeepers are becoming increasingly insufficient. Honeybee populations managed by beekeepers are “far too insufficient” to keep up with the world’s pollination demands, according to an analysis of data stretching back 30 years. The beekeeping industry is growing, but An Jiandong at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and his colleagues discovered that demand for the services the bees provide is growing even faster. Their analysis suggests that, in 1989, the global honeybee stock could supply around 56.9 per cent of demand. But this had declined to 44.1 per cent by 2019 because demand for pollination grew 2.3 times faster than the number of colonies kept by beekeepers. Oil crops, such as soybean and rapeseed, are driving the growing demand for honeybee pollination. Such crops are predominantly grown in monocultures over large areas, resulting in biodiversity loss and overreliance on managed bee stocks. “An insufficient number of managed honeybees will likely be unable to supply sufficient pollination services in agricultural ecosystems,” says An. “The resultant effect of this shortfall is low yields in crops dependent on these pollinators, which will exacerbate the current food and nutritional deficiency.” Pressures on honeybee colonies from disease and parasites are already presenting severe challenges to beekeepers, says Tom Breeze at the University of Reading, UK, whose research looking at managed honeybees in Europe was used as a source for calculations in the new work. He adds that a push for low-cost honey is also reducing incentives for large-scale commercial beekeeping operations. “What this really demonstrates is how reliant we are on wild pollinators. Honeybees are not enough; we have to lean on wild pollinators, but they are subjected to all manner of different pressures,” says Breeze.
3-2-22 UK allows emergency use of bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticide
The UK government has authorised the emergency use of a type of pesticide almost entirely banned in the EU because of the harm it can cause bees. A Defra spokesperson said the use of one type of neonicotinoid on sugar beet was "based on robust scientific assessment". The use would be subject to strict conditions, Defra said. But the Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, called it "scandalous". Studies have shown that the group of pesticides damage the nervous systems and navigational abilities of bees and other pollinators. The pesticides can also end up in streams and rivers and harm aquatic life, and can persist for a long time in the environment. Their outdoor use was banned in almost all EU countries in 2018. At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, then environment secretary, said the UK was in favour because it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk". The government is now authorising one type, thiamethoxam, to be used on sugar beet in England in 2022 because of the potential risk of yellows viruses, spread by aphids, which can severely damage crops. It estimates that almost 70% of the national sugar beet crop could be affected. A Defra spokesperson said that the decision "was not taken lightly". "We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorisations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives." The chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, criticised the decision. "The Government has outlined ambitions to restore nature, promising to protect 30% of land by 2030 and reverse declines of precious wildlife - but at the same time, it is giving a green light to use a highly toxic chemical that could harm pollinating insects and pollute soils and rivers," he said. According to the National Farmers' Union (NFU), there are 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet, and the wider industry supports around 9,500 jobs in England, largely in the East. To minimise risks to bees, farmers will be banned from growing flowering plants for 32 months after the sugar beet crop.
2-23-22 Antibiotic used on crops might make it harder for bumblebees to forage
Streptomycin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial diseases in apple orchards, might have a negative impact on bee foraging behaviour. Exposure to streptomycin, an antibiotic used to treat crop diseases in the US, weakens the foraging ability of the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), which may have negative implications for plant pollination. The use of antibiotics for spraying crops has increased exponentially in recent years, with streptomycin predominantly used in the US to control the bacterial disease fire blight in apple and pear orchards. To assess the impact of contact with the drug on a key pollinator, Laura Avila at Emory University and her colleagues fed a group of B. impatiens a diet of sucrose mixed with streptomycin at a concentration of 200 parts per million – representative of those sprayed by growers. A control group received sucrose alone. After two days on these diets, the bees were given a series of tests. Bees exposed to streptomycin took longer to be trained to associate sucrose and water with different coloured strips. Also, in a two-hour foraging test in which the bees were tracked by radio tags, they visited fewer sucrose-filled artificial ‘flowers’ than bees in the control group. Separate tests showed that individual bees would choose to consume less antibiotic-laced sucrose than sucrose alone, suggesting that nectar tainted with antibiotics could be less attractive. “We are conducting follow-up work to see if these behavioural effects are driven by changes in the bee gut microbiome,” says Avila. “Laboratory studies from other research groups have shown that antibiotics can – unsurprisingly – disrupt bee gut microbiomes,” she says, “and work in honey bees and other insects has shown microbiome changes can impact insect behaviour.”
1-26-22 Some bee colonies have to kill thousands of ‘selfish’ wannabe queens
About one-fifth of all Melipona beecheii stingless bee larvae develop as queens, but the colony accepts only one – the rest are executed by worker guards. Some stingless bees seem to be able to choose whether to become a worker or the queen – but thousands of contenders for the throne are executed in each hive. About one-fifth of all Melipona beecheii stingless bee larvae start to develop as queens, but the colony accepts only one. The rest are attacked by strong-jawed workers within seconds of emerging from their cells. Biologists suspected that colonies of this species overproduce queens as a clever evolutionary strategy to take over other hives. But it now seems that it is simply a result of the “selfishness” of individual larvae – to the detriment of the whole colony, says Ricardo Caliari Oliveira at KU Leuven in Belgium. “This is a really far from perfect world,” he says. “People think there is a design in evolution, but in this case the bees are just making the best of a bad situation. The colony is spending a lot of resources to produce new individuals, and then all they can do afterwards is waste those resources and kill the queens.” In most bee colonies, including those of around 500 species of stingless bees, workers select one larva to become the sole queen by placing it in a larger cell and feeding it a special diet. But larvae of the Melipona genus all live in cells of the same size and receive the same food. In 2010, researchers suggested Melipona beecheii workers were feeding a chemical called geraniol to the future queens. Caliari Oliveira and his colleagues wondered if they chose so many queens in order to spread the colony’s DNA into other hives through parasitism. To investigate further, they took genetic samples of queens and workers from 25 free-ranging M. beecheii colonies at or near the Autonomous University of Yucatan in Mexico.
12-8-21 Gut bacteria let vulture bees eat rotting flesh without getting sick
Specialized microbes help the insects avoid food poisoning. Mention foraging bees and most people will picture insects flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar. But in the jungles of Central and South America, “vulture bees” have developed a taste for decaying flesh. They are “the weirdos of the bee world,” says insect biologist Jessica Maccaro of the University of California, Riverside. Most bees are vegetarian. Scientists have puzzled over why the stingless buzzers seem to prefer rotting carcasses to nectar (SN: 2/11/04). Now, Maccaro and colleagues think they have cracked the riddle by looking into the bees’ guts. Vulture bees (Trigona spp.) have a lot more acid-producing gut bacteria than their vegetarian counterparts do, Maccaro and colleagues report November 23 in mBio. And those bacteria are the same types that protect carrion feeders such as vultures and hyenas from getting sick on rotting meat. To probe the bees’ insides, Maccaro’s colleagues trekked into a Costa Rican jungle. Since vulture bees feed on almost any dead animal, including lizards and snakes, the researchers cut up store-bought chicken and suspended the raw flesh from tree branches. To deter ants, the team smeared petroleum jelly on the string that the meat dangled from. “The funny thing is we’re all vegetarians,” says entomologist Quinn McFrederick, also of UC Riverside. “It was kind of gross for us to cut up the chicken.” That gross factor quickly intensified in the warm, humid jungle: The meat rotted, turning slimy and stinky. Bees took the bait within a day. As the scavengers stopped by to dine, the researchers trapped about 30 bees. The team also captured another 30 or so of two other types of local bees — one that feeds on only flowers and one type that dines on both flowers and rotting meat. All bees were stored in alcohol-filled vials to preserve the insects’ DNA for analysis, as well as the DNA of any gut microbes.
12-3-21 World's most common bee originated 7 million years ago in Asia
A genetic analysis suggests the world’s most common species of honeybee, the western honeybee, first appeared in western Asia about 7 million years ago and then spread into Africa and Europe. Genomic analysis has revealed that the western honeybee – which lives across Europe, Africa and Asia – first evolved in western Asia. Understanding the evolution of honeybees can help us protect these crucial pollinators. Ancestral honeybees are thought to have originated in south-east Asia, but whether the western honeybee species (Apis mellifera) evolved from an ancestral honeybee in Asia or after its ancestor had spread to Africa is widely debated. Kathleen Dogantzis at York University in Canada and her colleagues have now resolved this question by analysing the genomes of 251 western honeybees, covering 18 subspecies collected from across Europe, Africa and Asia. The team found that the western honeybee species first evolved in western Asia, before spreading into Europe and Africa, where different subspecies formed through natural selection. The key to the researchers’ approach was to include many samples from Africa and Asia. “We focused on getting samples from Africa and Asia, because they’re generally under-represented [in studies of honeybee origins],” says Dogantzis. By comparing how similar the bee genomes were to each other, the team estimated that the A. mellifera ancestor originated in Asia around 7 million years ago, then spread into both Africa and Europe around 6 million years ago. Previous studies had suggested African and European subspecies evolved within the last million years, says Dogantzis. She says that time frame may be more correct, because the focus of those studies was on when the subspecies appeared, whereas the new study mainly focuses on where they spread from.
11-10-21 Asian honeybees scream in alarm when giant hornets attack the hive
Asian honeybees produce what has been described as a disturbing scream-like sound when their hive is attacked by giant hornets. A frenzied alarm signal produced by a type of Asian honeybee during a giant hornet attack has been identified for the first time. Hornets are Asian honeybees’ most devastating predators and can wipe out entire colonies. Heather Mattila at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and her colleagues recorded sounds inside hives containing Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) as they came under attack either by a type of giant hornet (Vespa soror) related to the infamous “murder” hornet (Vespa mandarinia), or a smaller hornet species (Vespa velutina). The team also recorded sounds from the hives in the absence of predators. In total, the researchers captured nearly 30,000 bee signals in more than 1300 minutes of recording, from three beekeeping yards in Hanoi, Vietnam. By analysing pictures of the sound patterns, the team discovered that bees produce a previously undescribed set of harsh and irregular noises that can change rapidly in frequency when giant hornets, but not smaller hornets, arrive at the hive. They named these signals “antipredator pipes”. No such sounds were detected in the absence of threats. “I found it really disturbing. When you analyse the recordings, part of you is scared for the bees, and part of you is so excited for how unusual these sounds were,” says Mattila. The acoustic properties are very similar to alarm shrieks and fear screams made by other animals like primates and birds, says Mattila. Using cameras to film the hive entrances, the team found that the antipredator pipes seemed to rally more bees to the hive entrance. Once here, the bees placed more animal dung around colony entrances, a behaviour known to deter hornets. The arrival of smaller hornets didn’t lead to increased dung-depositing by the bees.
11-8-21 Wild honeybees believed to have been wiped out discovered in ancient woodlands
A bee conservationist made an unexpected discovery in the ancient woodlands surrounding Blenheim Palace in England. Filipe Salbany found hundreds of thousands of rare honeybees that appear to be the last wild descendants of Britain's native honeybee population, The Guardian reports. These bees are smaller, furrier, and darker than their counterparts that live in managed beehives, and they "live in nests in very small cavities, as bees have for millions of years," Salbany said. In the early 1990s, the varroa mite arrived in Britain and was thought to have wiped out the wild honeybee population, but Salbany said he believes the bees he came across have evolved to survive such threats. DNA samples have been extracted from the bees for testing, and Salbany said it's clear their wings are smaller and their veins are "very distinct," distinguishing them from imported bees. The woodlands are not open to the public and there is no gardening or planting activity, so there is "very little human interaction," Salbany told The Guardian. The bees are so relaxed that he's able to touch them safely, and they make "incredibly pure" honey. Salbany said he thinks it's likely there are other spots with hidden wild bee populations, and that's why "we need to protect our ancient woodlands. Because that's where we are likely to find these bees."
10-6-21 Waggle dances show city bees have shorter commutes than country bees
A study of the waggle dances of honeybees shows that bees in central London don’t have to fly as far to find food as those living in farmland outside the city. “We knew that big cities were good for bees, but our study is contributing to showing why,” says Elli Leadbeater at Royal Holloway, University of London. “There is more forage available.” In the summer of 2017, Leadbeater and her colleague Ash Samuelson visited 20 hives every two weeks to record waggle dances. The hives had glass panels, allowing the dances to be filmed without disturbing the bees. Ten of the hives were in farmland around London and 10 were in the centre of the city. The waggle dances of honeybees reveal the direction and approximate distance of the best nectar sources found by foraging workers. Overall, Leadbeater and Samuelson – and their colleague Roger Schürch at Virginia Tech – decoded nearly 3000 waggle dances. This showed that the median distance to sources of nectar was around 490 metres for city colonies, but 740 metres for those in farmland. The longest distance in this study was around 9 kilometres, although bees can fly up to 14 kilometres to a food resource, says Leadbeater. The findings suggest that the availability of food, rather than less pesticides or diseases, is the key reason why honeybees do better in cities than farmland, she says. Gardens and parks provide more diverse, plentiful and reliable resources than farms. Gardeners usually aim to have flowers throughout spring and summer, and water plants during dry periods, says Leadbeater. But because green spaces within urban areas are small compared with farmland, they don’t make up for the impoverishment of farmland. The findings probably apply generally even though parts of London are greener than some other cities in Europe. “The area of London that we studied is pretty much full of concrete,” says Leadbeater. She adds that the findings also probably apply to bumblebees as well as honeybees, but may not be true for solitary bees.
9-20-21 Endangered South African penguins killed by swarm of bees near Cape Town
Sixty-three endangered African penguins have been killed by a swarm of bees in a rare occurrence near Cape Town, bird conservationists in South Africa say. The protected birds, from a colony in Simonstown, were found on the shore with multiple bee-stings. They had no other physical injuries. National parks officials told the BBC this was the first known attack at the world-famous Boulders Beach, which attracts up to 60,000 visitors a year. "Usually the penguins and bees co-exist," said Dr Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South Africa's national parks agency (SANParks). "The bees don't sting unless provoked - we are working on the assumption that a nest or hive in the area was disturbed and caused a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and became aggressive," she added. "Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path." Post-mortems found that the birds had been stung around the eyes and on their flippers. That is because "those are the parts that are not covered by feathers," Dr Katta Ludynia, from the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob), told the BBC. One of the penguins had been stung 27 times. "Seeing the number of stings in individual birds, it would have probably been deadly for any animal of that size," Dr Ludynia added. Honeybees die after stinging and a number of dead bees were found at the scene. "Once a honeybee has stung something, it leaves a pheromone behind so that the target is easily located by other honeybees defending the nest," said Jenny Cullinan of the African Wild Bee Institute, which is asking residents to stop keeping beehives in their gardens. African penguins are distinctive for their small size, and live on the coast and islands of South Africa and Namibia - though some have been spotted as far north as Gabon. Their populations are rapidly declining, the International Union for Conservation of Nature says, in main part because of commercial fishing and what it calls "environmental fluctuation".
8-24-21 Thieving honeybees offer a glimpse of flowers’ evolutionary origins
Honeybees are championed as valuable pollinators, but sometimes they steal pollen without helping the plant that makes it. Now, a study of pollen theft by honeybees from a type of non-flowering plant is shedding light on why the very first flowers may have evolved. Honeybees’ reputation for diligent pollination is mostly well-deserved, but they aren’t universally good for all plants. Tao Wan at the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden in Shenzhen, China, and his colleagues have discovered that, in the tropical rainforests on the Chinese island of Hainan, the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) steals pollen from a plant called Gnetum luofuense. The bees keep all the pollen they collect from this plant for themselves, to the detriment of the plants that they take it from. “We were totally surprised because this phenomenon has never been described before for this species,” says Wan. G. luofuense is a type of gymnosperm, a group of plants that also includes conifers, ginkgos and cycads. While gymnosperms do produce pollen, they don’t make flowers or fruits, and most species are pollinated by the wind. Before this study, it wasn’t known that honeybees visited G. luofuense. Wan’s team found that honeybees frequently visited male G. luofuense plants at dusk and dawn to collect pollen. But the bees avoided female plants altogether, meaning that they didn’t facilitate any pollination for this species. Bees weren’t the only visitors to the G. luofuense flowers – the team also observed visits from Mecodina cineracea moths, which attended both male and female plants, serving as effective pollinators. However, when honeybees were present, the team found that these moths carried 70 per cent less pollen and the plants produced fewer seeds. These findings provide a glimpse of the time before flowering plants, known as angiosperms, came to dominate, roughly 90 to 125 million years ago. Before angiosperms, gymnosperms were the dominant type of plant life, but only around 1500 species remain today. In comparison, there are more than 350,000 species of angiosperms.
8-6-21 Will Turkey's bees return after the wildfires?
Wildfires have devastated Turkey's coastline and left at least eight people dead. But people in Marmaris region are also mourning the loss of their bees. This corner of Turkey produced most of the world’s pine honey, a special kind of honey that depends on a delicate ecosystem, now largely destroyed. BBC Turkish has spoken to beekeepers, who are facing a bleak future.
7-28-21 Caffeine-fuelled bumblebees are better at foraging for nectar
Bumblebees that get a caffeine boost are better able to remember the odours of specific flowers, helping them to forage for them in future. The caffeine appears to enhance bees’ learning and memory skills, even if there is no caffeine in the flowers they ultimately choose. Previous research has shown that bees have a preference for flowers with naturally caffeinated nectar, such as coffee and citrus plants, but it was unclear whether the caffeine boosted their performance or if they actually craved the caffeine itself. Sarah Arnold and Jan-Hendrik Dudenhöffer at the University of Greenwich, UK, crafted a synthetic odour of strawberry flowers, which aren’t naturally caffeinated, and provided it along with sugar water to feed to laboratory bees in their nests. Then they added a small, tasteless dose of caffeine to the nectar in about half those nests. The researchers also fed unscented sugar water to a control group of bees. Starting the next day, Dudenhöffer let the bees explore an area containing eight flower-like robots which would distribute synthetic nectar when the bees landed on them, and then refill themselves. Half the robots smelled like strawberry flowers, and the other half smelled like linalool, an odour found in many kinds of flowers, but not strawberry plants. All the robots provided sweet nectar as a treat, but none of them contained caffeine. Bees that had fed on neutral sugar water in their nests showed no preference for any of the flower robots, visiting the strawberry-smelling ones about half the time. Those that had been fed a caffeine-free strawberry flower nectar selected the strawberry-smelling robots more frequently – about 60 per cent of the time. The bees that had had caffeine in their strawberry nectar, however, showed a strong preference for the strawberry-scented robots, visiting them 70 per cent of the time, says Arnold. In addition, they learned to gradually get faster as they foraged – even more so than the bees that had not had caffeine.
6-8-21 A single honeybee has cloned itself hundreds of millions of times
The workers of a South African subspecies of honeybee can clone themselves, with one individual having done so many millions of times over the past 30 years. Some of the clones can even develop into queens that can take over the hive. Asexual reproduction – parthenogenesis – isn’t uncommon in the insect world, but having offspring that are genetically identical to the parent is. That’s because, during the reproductive process, genetic material gets mixed up in a process called recombination. As a result, even if there is only one parent its offspring end up with a slightly different genetic makeup. However, the female workers of the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis), native to southern South Africa, have developed the unusual ability to clone themselves while effectively avoiding recombination during reproduction, says Benjamin Oldroyd at the University of Sydney. Doing so carries important benefits. Normally, asexual reproduction can be lethal in honeybees because about a third of the genes become inbred, and the larvae don’t survive, Oldroyd says. But because Cape honeybee worker bees perfectly clone themselves, each clone remains as genetically healthy as her mother. “It’s quite remarkable,” he says. One line of clones has been re-cloning since 1990, with the same individual copied hundreds of millions of times, says Oldroyd. The clones can prove problematic for the health of the colony, however. Generally speaking, the queen bee is the only individual that reproduces, while other bees carry out their own duties to keep the colony healthy. If the workers begin cloning themselves – which can happen if the hive is disturbed in some way – this delicate balance is destroyed. In some cases, one of the clones can even develop into a queen of a dysfunctional hive.
4-1-21 Bees exposed to more toxic pesticides despite overall use falling
Bees and other pollinators in the US, and probably other countries, have been exposed to growing levels of toxicity from pesticides over 25 years, despite the amount used falling in the same period. Countries should consider following Denmark’s lead with “toxicity taxes” on pesticides to encourage farmers to change which products they use, says one of the researchers behind the new findings. In recent years, pesticides that precisely target crop pests have been linking to falling insect numbers, with the European Union banning outdoor use of several widely used pesticides known as neonicotinoids in 2018. In January, following its exit from the EU, the UK controversially allowed the emergency use of such “neonics” to kill aphids carrying a virus that threatens sugar beet. “We saw people from media, politics and even scientists often talk about how the amount of pesticides changes [over time]. At the same time, we saw, as ecotoxicologists, that the toxicity of pesticides changed. Some insecticides used today are way more toxic to some groups of organism than ones used decades ago,” says Ralf Schulz at the University of Koblenz and Landau, Germany, who led the new research. He and his team combined US government data on the weight of 381 pesticides used between 1992 and 2016 with their own index of the pesticides’ toxicity for different groups of species, from birds and mammals to pollinators and plants, to create a measure dubbed “total applied toxicity”. They found that for pollinators, plants on land and aquatic invertebrates such as dragonflies, this increased by about 80 per cent between 2005 and 2016, even though the weight of pesticides used fell. “This data suggests there is more toxic pressure on bees and plants [than thought],” says Schulz. One solution could be a toxicity tax on pesticides, to incentivise farmers away from the most harmful ones, he suggests.
3-29-21 Nearly 500 bee species are thriving in a small patch of US desert
There are about 20,000 known species of bee on the planet, and nowhere else is this diversity more concentrated than in southern Arizona along the US-Mexico border. Hundreds of bee species can be found in a patch of desert there about the size of Heathrow airport, meaning it has the world’s densest aggregation of bee species yet measured. Unlike plants and many other organisms that see the highest diversity in the tropics, bees seem be most diverse in warm, dry regions around the globe. So when Robert Minckley at the University of Rochester in New York had the opportunity to study bee populations in the Chihuahuan desert at the US-Mexico border, one of his main goals was simply to count how many species were there. Minckley and his colleagues targeted a site straddling the border, composed of a former cattle ranch in the Mexican state of Sonora and the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. From 2001 through to 2008, the researchers collected bees by leaving out traps in the desert scrub, then later identified the species. Out of tens of thousands of individual bees, Minckley and his team counted 473 species from a 16-square-kilometre area. “That’s a tremendous number of bees,” says Minckley. The researchers estimate that 14 per cent of all North American bee species found north of the US-Mexico border call this region home, the vast majority of which live solitary lives and nest in the ground. Some other locations in the US have logged more bee species, says Minckley, but these are in national parks, which are far larger, more environmentally variable regions thanks to bigger changes in elevation and habitat across their massive landscapes. The researchers’ site at the border is a more homogeneous environment, fluctuating by only 120 meters in elevation, and is mostly home to creosote bush, mesquite and cactus plants. The next highest concentration of bee species in the US is found in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which has a much greater diversity of vegetation zones, including pinyon-juniper woodland and coniferous forests.
3-24-21 Does local honey really work as a hay fever cure?
Eating local honey is often recommended as a treatment for hay fever. Does it have any effect? James Wong investigates. IT IS that time of year again. The days are brighter, daffodils start popping up around my neighbourhood, the dawn chorus of birdsong finally returns each morning and my social media starts filling up with anxious questions about whether local honey can treat hay fever. Now, I realise this is a little self-interested, but here is my attempt to get to the bottom of the best evidence we have to date, once and for all. Or at least until more studies come in. With approximately 20 per cent of people in the UK affected by an allergic response to airborne pollen, it is perhaps unsurprising that many are turning to an everyday food that contains small amounts of pollen, but doesn’t trigger the allergy, as a plausible-sounding remedy. Being great-tasting, widely available and relatively inexpensive, honey would indeed be an excellent vehicle to administer non-triggering doses of pollen. This is supposed to work as a form of immunotherapy to prime our bodies to deal with the summer onslaught. When you consider the potential side effects of the antihistamines used in conventional medication, you can definitely see the allure. But what does the evidence actually say? Despite the frequency with which local honey’s therapeutic effect is claimed, there seem to only be three scientific studies that have systematically investigated it. Sadly none of them, arguably, in a particularly robust way. The most recent one is a 2013 study carried out in West Malaysia. This found that after consuming a multifloral honey produced by a tropical bee species deep in the rainforest for four weeks, people showed an improvement in symptoms for allergic rhinitis, which continued to the end of the eight-week study and beyond. PDFs of the report are often sent to me by people from the UK and US as “proof” that local honey is indeed a cure for hay fever.
3-24-21 Bees have higher brain cell density than birds – but ants don’t
Many bees have a brain cell density greater than that of small birds – but most ant brains contain a far lower density of neurons. The difference may be down to the insects’ lifestyles: because bees fly, they may need more brain cells than ants do in order to process visual information. Scientists have already compared the size and weight of various insects’ brains, which contain independent specialised regions to process visual information, sounds, smells and even memories. But brain size, whether in insects or vertebrate animals like birds and mammals, doesn’t always give a realistic idea of brain power. This is because some animals – especially flying ones like birds that would be weighed down by a large and heavy brain – have many neurons compacted into a smaller space, making the cell density higher. Rebekah Keating Godfrey at the University of Arizona and her colleagues studied insect brains using a recently developed technique for counting brain cells. They removed the brains of 450 insects belonging to 32 different species, including bees, wasps, ants and a species of fly. Each brain was ground up and soaked in a solution that frees the nucleus of each brain cell. Then the researchers added a dye that makes those nuclei fluoresce, allowing them to count the number of nuclei in a small sample under a special “epifluorescence” microscope using ultraviolet light. From that number, they could estimate the number of neurons in the animal’s entire brain. The researchers found that some of the bees – in particular, the metallic green sweat bee (in the genus Augochlorella) – had very high numbers of neurons for their brain sizes: about 2 million per milligram. This is higher even than those seen in the neuron-rich cerebellums of many birds: the goldcrest (Regulus regulus), for example, has 490,000 cells per milligram./p> 3-15-21
Bee larvae drum with their butts, which may confuse predatory wasps
The grub-like larvae use calluses to tap their cocoons in a curious chorus inside a plant stem. A light crackling sound floats above a field in northern Switzerland in late summer. Its source is invisible, tucked inside a dead, dried plant stem: a dozen larval mason bees striking the inner walls of their herbaceous nest. While adult bees and wasps make plenty of buzzy noises, their young have generally been considered silent. But the babies of at least one bee species make themselves heard, playing percussion instruments growing out of their faces and rear ends, researchers report February 25 in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research. The larvae’s chorus of tapping and rasping may be a clever strategy to befuddle predatory wasps. Unlike honeybees, the mason bee (Hoplitis tridentata) lives a solitary life. Females chew into dead plant stems and lay their eggs inside, often in a single row of chambers lined up along its length. After hatching, the larvae feed on a provision of pollen left by the mom, spin a cocoon and overwinter as a pupa inside the stem. Andreas Müller, an entomologist at the nature conservation research agency Natur Umwelt Wissen GmbH in Zurich, has been studying bees in the Osmiini tribe, which includes mason bees and their close relatives, for about 20 years. Noticing that H. tridentata populations have been declining in northern Switzerland, he and colleague Martin Obrist tried to help the bees. “We offered the bees bundles of dry plant stems as nesting sites, and when we checked the bundles we heard the larval sounds for the first time,” says Müller. “This is a new phenomenon not only in the osmiine bees, but in bees in general.” He and Obrist, a biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf, gathered stem nests from the field and subjected them to various types of physical disturbance, trying to determine what kinds of pestering triggers the bee larvae to drum. In some nests, the duo cut windows into the stems to observe larvae through the translucent cocoon walls, unveiling the secret of how the insects were creating the noises.
3-15-21 Texas beekeeper viral videos saving bee nests
Texas beekeeper Erika Thompson rescued a nest of bees that had been stuck under the floorboards of a garden shed for over two years, in a video that has since gone viral. Since posting the video online on Friday, it has been viewed over 1.5 million times on Twitter. She said the reaction to the video was incredible as, for her, it was "just a normal Tuesday".
1-22-21 A quarter of all known bee species haven't been seen since the 1990s
The number of bee species recorded worldwide has been sharply decreasing since the 1990s. Eduardo Zattara and Marcelo Aizen at the National University of Comahue in Argentina analysed how many wild bee species are observed each year as recorded in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility – a publicly available platform where researchers and citizens can record sightings of bee species. They found that there were a quarter fewer species reported between 2006 and 2015, as compared with the records we have from before 1990. The decline is especially alarming considering the number of bee records in this database has increased by around 55 per cent since 2000, so it isn’t down to a lack of observations. “Our work is the first long-term assessment of global bee decline,” says Zattara. Previous bee research has been confined to a specific species or a particular location. The researchers found that the decline isn’t consistent across all bee families. Records of the rare Melittidae family of around 200 bee species have fallen by as much as 41 per cent since the 1990s, versus 17 per cent for the more common Halictidae family. It may not necessarily mean unrecorded bee species are extinct, but they are now rare enough that people who tend to report bee sightings aren’t encountering them. The destruction of natural habitats, heavy use of pesticides and climate change could explain this decline in species richness, says Zattara. “We are producing more food to feed our growing population,” says Zattara. “[We are] using highly economically convenient ways to grow single-culture crops, which is removing a lot of the bees’ natural habitat.” The global decline in species mirrors what has previously been reported in Britain. But the researchers note that studies in more remote areas are needed to gain a full picture, as most existing data comes from North America and Europe, where it may be easier to record bee species.
1-14-21 Honey detective work raises fears for bees
DNA detective work on honey has given a rare insight into the foraging habits of honeybees. Scientists used genetic tools to discover which plants the pollinators visited in the countryside. They compared this with a study from 1952, finding big shifts in the wildflowers available to bees. In the 1950s, honeybees mainly gathered pollen and nectar from white clover. Today, there is not so much of this plant about, so they seek alternatives. These include oilseed rape and Himalayan balsam. And there are fears that honeybees and other vital pollinators are running out of food supplies as wildflowers disappear in hedgerows and fields. "We've seen these major changes in the UK landscape and the honeybees have shown us that from their honey samples," Dr Natasha de Vere, head of conservation and research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, told BBC News. She said the agricultural systems of today didn't have enough nectar for pollinators, with much of the habitat for bees being grasslands, which are a "kind of green desert". "There's nothing that really flowers within those pastures anymore, whereas in the 1950s, those pastures would have been full of white clover and other wildflowers as well." To come up with their findings, the researchers analysed hundreds of honey samples sent in by beekeepers up and down the country, following an appeal on the BBC TV programme Gardeners' World. These were analysed by DNA barcoding, where fragments of plant DNA are identified in pollen trapped in honey. The historic study also looked at pollen grains in honey, but different plants were identified by examining the structure of pollen under the microscope. They found that white clover - the favourite source of nectar for honeybees in 1952 - is still important now but used a lot less as the plant is becoming more scarce. Instead, honeybees have switched to bramble; oilseed rape, which started to be grown from the 1960s onwards; and Himalayan balsam, an invasive plant that has been spreading rapidly across the countryside.
1-11-21 UK allows emergency use of bee-harming pesticide
A pesticide believed to harm bees has been authorised for emergency use in England, despite an earlier ban. In 2018, an almost total ban was put in by the EU and UK because of the serious damage it could cause to bees. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says its use will be limited to this year only. A spokeswoman told Newsbeat the measures "will be tightly controlled to minimise any potential risk to pollinators". Emergency use of a product containing the chemical thiamethoxam has been allowed because a virus is threatening sugar beet seeds. Scientific studies have long linked the use of these chemicals to the decline of honeybees, wild bees and other animals which pollinate plants. At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, then environment secretary, said the UK was in favour as it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk". But according to Defra, the amount of sugar beet grown in 2020 was reduced due to the yellow virus - and similar conditions in 2021 would cause the same problems, unless it took action. Along with the UK, 10 EU countries including Belgium, Denmark and Spain - countries with significant sugar production - have granted emergency authorisations. Milan Wiercx van Rhijn, from the charity Bees for Development feels "disappointed" by the government's decision. The 32-year-old says the insects play a vital role in the food chain - with around a third of the food we eat relying on pollination mainly by bees. "If we kill the insects which are the starting blocks in the chain, we'll kill the animals higher up," he tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. "It's hard to grasp how much of an impact it'll have on us." Milan agrees it's important to protect sugar beet - but says the government has to find another way. "If we keep thinking about these short-term solutions and rolling back, we'll never get to the point where we don't use these products." (Webmaster's comment: When push comes to shove it's always us over every other creature!)
12-9-20 Asian honeybees use animal faeces to defend themselves from hornets
Asian honeybees collect animal faeces and dot the entrance of their hives with it as a defence against group attacks by giant hornets. Heather Mattila at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and her colleagues have studied the behaviour in Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) in northern Vietnam. It is the first time honeybees have been documented foraging for solids that are not plant-derived. The bees are preyed upon by giant hornets (Vespa soror), which launch group attacks that can kill thousands of worker bees, sometimes resulting in the loss of an entire colony. “If it gets bad enough, the bee colony abandons their home,” says Mattila. Asian honeybees use various defence strategies against predators, including hissing sounds, visual displays and enveloping intruders in a ball of bees until they overheat. The researchers observed three apiaries and found that the honeybees collected small balls from piles of animal dung – from chickens, pigs, cows and water buffalo – placed near the colonies. The bees transported the dung in their mouthparts and applied it to spots close to the entrance to their hives. The behaviour occurred after visits or attacks by giant hornets and continued for days afterwards even if the hornets didn’t return. Visits from Vespa velutina hornets – a smaller species that kill individual bees but don’t attack en masse – didn’t elicit the behaviour. Moderate and heavy deposits of faeces at hive entrances lowered the incidence of group attacks by giant hornets and reduced the chances of the hornets chewing on the entrances to create larger openings. The team has since heard reports of the behaviour from beekeepers in other Asian countries, including those beyond where V. soror is found.
11-20-20 Global map of bees created in conservation first
Scientists have mapped the distribution of all 20,000 bee species on earth. The new global map of bees will help in the conservation of the insects we rely on to pollinate our crops, say researchers in Singapore and China. Bee populations are facing pressure from habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Yet little is known about the array of species living on every continent save Antarctica, ranging from tiny stingless bees to bees the size of a human thumb. Bees provide essential services to our ecosystems and are the major pollinators of many of our staple foods, said Dr Alice Hughes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan. Yet, until now, we have not had the data to show where on the planet most species are. "Here we combine millions of records to create the first maps of global bee richness, and understand why we see these patterns," she told BBC News. "These maps, and our framework, can then form the basis of future work, enabling us to better understand patterns of bee richness and ensure that they are effectively conserved into the future." Some bee populations, such as bumblebees in Europe and North America, are well studied. But in other regions, such as large parts of Asia and Africa, documentation has been sparse. While there remains a lot to learn about what drives bee diversity, the research team hopes their work will help in the conservation of bees as global pollinators. Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore said by establishing a reliable baseline we can characterise bee declines and "distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing". To create their map, the researchers compared data about the occurrence of individual bee species with a checklist of over 20,000 species compiled by Dr Ascher. This gave a clearer picture of how the many species of bees are distributed around the world.
9-17-20 Training bees to prefer certain flower scents boosts seed production
It is possible to train honeybees to prefer certain flowers. Feeding them food with a sunflower scent makes them more likely to visit sunflowers, boosting seed production by up to 60 per cent. Many crops require insect pollination. In some parts of the world, beehives are routinely trucked from farm to farm to maximise pollination levels during the brief flowering periods. When the hives are moved, it can take time for the bees to start foraging on the new crop around them “By conditioning bees inside the nest, it’s possible to reduce the delay to begin foraging in a new surrounding,” says Walter Farina at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His team had previously shown that honeybees remember the food scents exchanged within colonies. To see if these memories can be exploited to influence behaviour, the researchers first developed a simplified version of the scent of sunflowers, containing just a few key chemicals. They then gave some hives a sugar solution with this scent added, to train the bees to associate the scent with a reward. When these hives were moved near to a field of sunflowers, foragers from the hives started doing waggle dances directing other bees to the sunflower field within an hour, and just a few hours later 84 per cent of all waggle dances were directing other bees to the sunflowers. By contrast, in hives that had been given sugar without the sunflower scent added, it was 5 hours before any waggle dances directed bees to the sunflowers. The researchers also put harmless coloured powder at the entrance to hives so that exiting bees would be colour-marked. They then caught bees visiting sunflowers and checked their colour. This confirmed that more bees from the hives fed the scented food were visiting sunflowers.
9-2-20 Honeybee venom 'kills some breast cancer cells'
Australian scientists say the venom from honeybees has been found to destroy aggressive breast cancer cells in a lab setting. The venom - and a compound in it called melittin - were used against two cancer types which are hard to treat: triple-negative and HER2-enriched. The discovery has been described as "exciting", but scientists caution that further testing is needed. Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women around the world. While there are thousands of chemical compounds which can fight cancer cells in a lab setting, scientists say there are few which can be produced as treatment for humans. Bee venom has previously been found to have anti-cancer properties for other types of cancer such as melanoma. The study by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia was published in Nature Precision Oncology, a peer-reviewed journal. It tested venom from over 300 honeybees and bumblebees. The honeybee extracts were found to be "extremely potent", said Ciara Duffy, a 25-year-old PhD researcher who led the study. One concentration of the venom was found to kill cancer cells within an hour, with minimal harm to the other cells. But the toxicity increased for other dosage levels. The researchers also found the melittin compound on its own was effective in "shutting down" or disrupting cancer cell growth. While melittin naturally occurs in honeybee venom, it can also be synthetically produced. Traditionally, triple-negative breast cancer - one of the most aggressive types - has been treated with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. It accounts for 10-15% of breast cancers. On Wednesday, Western Australia's chief scientist described the research as "incredibly exciting". "Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication," said Prof Peter Klinken. "It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases."
9-2-20 Honeybees are able to calculate probability and use it to find food
Honeybees can calculate probability, but it seems they don’t use it the same way we tend to. Andrew Barron at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues trained 20 honeybees to associate the colours of artificial flowers with the likelihood of obtaining sweet water. Over multiple sessions, they presented the bees with five colours in various combinations of two colours at a time. Each colour was ranked one to five. For each pair, only the higher-ranking colour dispensed sweetened water. The researchers then tested the bees on a combination they hadn’t seen yet: the second and fourth-ranking colours, representing odds of getting sweetened water of 66 and 33 per cent, respectively. You might think the best strategy for obtaining the treat would be to only visit flowers with the highest odds of delivering, but the bees did something different, says Barron. They matched the proportion of visits with the probability of getting sweet water, so for flowers with 66 per cent odds of sugar, they visited them roughly two-thirds of the time. This is known as probability matching. While that yields less sugar overall in the experiment than visiting the colour with the higher odds every time, it is a strategy that works better in a bee’s natural environment, says Zack Ellerby at the University of Nottingham, UK. With many bees competing for the same flowers with limited nectar, and the possibility of odds changing over time, this can be the optimal strategy, he says. “Ecologically, when information is uncertain and when gathering information has a cost, then probability matching is the best thing to do,” says Barron. “That’s what the bees did.” Humans tend to go for the highest odds in situations where probabilities seem to be fixed, such as a casino. The same might be true for bees; if they thought the odds for each colour were permanent, they might adjust their strategy, says Richard Mann at the University of Leeds, UK.
8-4-20 Wild bees add about $1.5 billion to yields for just six U.S. crops
Threats to native pollinators could shrink profits even at farms stocking honeybees. U.S. cherries, watermelons and some other summertime favorites may depend on wild bees more than previously thought. Many farms in the United States use managed honeybees to pollinate crops and increase yields, sometimes trucking beehives from farm to farm. Now an analysis of seven crops across North America shows that wild bees can play a role in crop pollination too, even on conventional farms abuzz with managed honeybees. Wild volunteers add at least $1.5 billion in total to yields for six of the crops, a new study estimates. “To me, the big surprise was that we found so many wild bees even in intense production areas where much of the produce in the USA is grown,” says coauthor Rachael Winfree, a pollination ecologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. That means threats to wild bees could shave profits even when farms stock honeybees, the researchers report July 29 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Both honeybees (Apis mellifera), which aren’t native to the United States, and wild pollinators such as bumblebees (Bombus spp.) face dangers including pesticides and pathogens (SN: 1/22/20). To see what, if anything, wild native bee species contribute, researchers spot-checked bee visits to flowers at 131 commercial farm fields across the United States and part of Canada. In a novel twist, the researchers also calculated to what extent the number of bee visits limited yields. These intensive farms with plenty of fertilizer, water and other resources often showed signs of reaching a pollinator limit, meaning fields didn’t have enough honeybees to get the maximum yield, and volunteer wild bees were adding to the total. Then the team estimated what percentage of the yield native bees were adding — versus just doing what honeybees would have done anyway.
6-22-20 Bubble-blowing drones may one day aid artificial pollination
Flying machines could step in when bees and other insects are scarce, researchers say. Drones that blow pollen-laden bubbles onto blossoms could someday help farmers pollinate their crops. Rather than relying on bees and other pollinating insects — which are dwindling worldwide as a result of climate change (SN: 7/9/15), pesticide use (SN: 10/5/17) and other factors — farmers can spray or swab pollen onto crops themselves. But machine-blown plumes can waste many grains of pollen, and manually brushing pollen onto plants is labor-intensive. Materials chemist Eijiro Miyako of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Nomi imagines outsourcing pollination to automatous drones that deliver pollen grains to individual flowers. His original idea involved a pollen-coated drone rubbing grains onto flowers, but that treatment damaged the blossoms (SN: 3/7/17). Then, while blowing bubbles with his son, Miyako realized that bubbles might be a gentler means of delivery. To that end, Miyako and his colleague Xi Yang, an environmental scientist also at JAIST, devised a pollen-containing solution that a drone toting a bubble gun could blow onto crops. To test the viability of their pollen-loaded bubbles, the researchers used this technique to pollinate by hand pear trees in an orchard. Those trees bore about as much fruit as trees pollinated using a traditional method of hand pollination, the researchers report online June 17 in iScience. Among various commercially available bubble solutions, Miyako and Yang found that pollen grains remained most healthy and viable in one made with lauramidopropyl betaine — a chemical used in cosmetics and personal care products. Using that solution as their base, the researchers added pollen-protecting ingredients, like calcium and potassium, along with a polymer to make the bubbles sturdy enough to withstand winds generated by drone propellers.
6-17-20 Soap bubbles covered in pollen could help fertilise flowers
Soap bubbles that deliver pollen to flowers could offer an alternative way of fertilising plants as bee populations decline, while being more delicate than other methods. Eijiro Miyako at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and his colleagues developed the technique and successfully used it to pollinate a pear orchard. “I jumped for joy,” he says. Miyako and his team mixed pear pollen grains with a soap solution containing nutrients and loaded the mixture into a bubble gun. They then used the gun to release bubbles into a pear orchard, with about two to 10 bubbles hitting each flower, and later measured their success rate by counting the flowers that bore fruit. They found that pollination using their soap bubbles had a similar success rate to pollination of the plants by hand, with approximately 95 per cent of the flowers bearing fruit in both cases. Using soap bubbles is much less labour intensive than manually pollinating every flower, says Miyako. Soap bubbles are also much gentler and therefore less likely to damage delicate flowers, he says. Miyako says the idea first occurred to him when he was playing with soap bubbles in the park with his son. “A soap bubble accidentally hit my son’s face,” he says, where it harmlessly burst. The researchers also tested their soap bubble pollination technique on other plants on a smaller scale, in the lab. This time, they attempted to pollinate lily, azalea and campanula plants, using the gun to direct a single bubble onto individual flowers. The success rates were about 93, 83 and 73 per cent respectively, says Miyako. This variation may be explained by differences in flower sizes between these plants, he says. There is lots of interest in developing new approaches to fertilise flowers, because about 90 per cent of flowering plants depend on insect pollinators, such as bees, whose populations are falling due to climate change and pesticide use. “This is a worldwide crisis,” says Miyako.
6-16-20 A Bee C: Scientists translate honeybee queen duets
Scientists using highly sensitive vibration detectors have decoded honeybee queens' "tooting and quacking" duets in the hive. Worker bees make new queens by sealing eggs inside special cells with wax and feeding them royal jelly. The queens quack when ready to emerge - but if two are free at the same time, they will fight to the death. So when one hatches, its quacks turn to toots, telling the workers to keep the others - still quacking - captive. Dr Martin Bencsik, from Nottingham Trent University, who led this study, described the tooting and quacking of these "wonderful animals" as "extraordinary". "You can hear the queens responding to each other," he said. "It has been assumed that the queens were talking to other queens - possibly sizing one another up vocally to see who is strongest. "But we now have proof for the alternative explanation." Tooting, the researchers found, is a queen moving around the colony - announcing her presence to the workers. The quacking is from queens that are ready to come out but are still captive inside their cells. The queens are not talking to each other, explained Dr Bencsik, "it's communication between the queen and the worker bees - an entire society of tens of thousands of bees trying to release one queen at a time. "Quacking queens are purposefully kept captive by the worker bees - they will not release the quacking queens because they can hear the tooting. "When the tooting stops, that means the queen would have swarmed [split the colony and set out to find a new nest] and this triggers the colony to release a new queen." Dr Bencsik said bee society was "absolutely splendid" to observe. "All decisions are group decisions," he said. "It's the worker bees that decide if they want a new queen or not." Pollinating insects face numerous threats, including from pesticides, habitat loss and climate change. And Dr Bencsik pointed out that beekeepers - and the hives they provide - are crucial for honeybee survival in the UK. The researchers hope this eavesdropping exercise will help beekeepers avoid interfering with this delicate collective decision-making and to predict when their own colonies might be about to swarm.
5-30-19 More ‘murder hornets’ are turning up. Here’s what you need to know
What’s getting overlooked in the furor over the world’s largest hornet’s move to North America. Two new specimens of Asian giant hornet have turned up in the Pacific Northwest, suggesting that the invasive species made it through the winter despite efforts last year to stamp out the menace to North America’s honeybees. A big, yellow-and-black insect found dead in a roadway near Custer, Wash., has been identified as the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia, Sven Spichiger, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, announced May 29. It was “probably a queen,” he said, from a brood in a 2019 nest and now ready to found a colony of her own. Canadian scientists have also confirmed their first giant hornet of 2020, a specimen spotted May 15 in Langley, British Columbia. Dubbed the “murder hornet” to the annoyance of entomologists, the predator earns its nickname from its proclivity to nab a honeybee, bite off the bee’s head carried home to nourish young hornets. Raiding parties of several dozen Asian giant hornets can kill whole hives containing thousands of bees in a few hours. Those are just some of the details that make V. mandarinia the newsiest stinging invader in years. It’s a fierce little predator, though not as apocalyptic as “murder hornet” headlines have suggested. Amid the uproar over the “new” hornets, a few facts have been overlooked. For one, North America has previously had at least one close call — not publicized at the time — with the world’s largest hornet. Unlike the current sensational invasion, however, that early episode had a happy ending, at least for the people and native insects of North America. Not so much for the hornets. What’s more, these aren’t the only big, bad hornets that have arrived at the borders of the continent.
5-22-19 Pollen-deprived bumblebees may speed up plant blooming by biting leaves
In a pollen shortage, bees can make tomatoes bloom early by nipping foliage. Here’s a bumblebee tip that might get a slowpoke plant to bloom early. Just bite its leaves. At least three species of bumblebees use their mouthparts to snip little confetti bits out of plant foliage, researchers report in the May 22 Science. This foliage biting gets more common when there’s a pollen shortage, says Consuelo De Moraes, a chemical ecologist and entomologist at ETH Zurich. Experiments show that mustard and tomato plants nibbled by Bombus terrestris bees bloomed earlier than unbitten plants by days, or even weeks, say De Moraes and her colleagues. So for the bumblebees, accelerating bloom times could be a lifesaver. When trying to found colonies in early spring, the bees rely on flower pollen as a protein source for raising their young. Foteini Paschalidou, an ecologist now at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research in Versailles-Grignon, was the first team member to call attention to the behavior. She was working on a different project with caged B. terrestris bees indoors. At first, De Moraes worried. “Is it something wrong with them?” The bees’ supplier and some farmers who used them to pollinate crops assured the researchers that nipping happens elsewhere, although the team hasn’t found any accounts in the scientific literature. To test a link between leaf biting and pollen shortages, the researchers did a caged-bee test. After three days without pollen, bumblebees trapped with nonblooming plants were more likely to poke holes in foliage than a bee group buzzing among plentiful flowers. When researchers swapped the bees’ situations, the insects now trapped without blooms started nibbling leaves. Tests done on the roof of the lab building with bees free to seek flowers in rooftop planters and elsewhere also found a link between pollen shortage and increased leaf biting, the researchers report.
5-22-19 How bumble bees trick plants into flowering early
Scientists have observed for the first time bumble bees tricking plants into flowering early. The practice is used by the bees when pollen is scarce.
5-21-19 Bees force plants to flower early by cutting holes in their leaves
Hungry bumblebees can coax plants into flowering and making pollen up to a month earlier than usual by punching holes in their leaves. Bees normally come out of hibernation in early spring to feast on the pollen of newly blooming flowers. However, they sometimes emerge too early and find that plants are still flowerless and devoid of pollen, which means the bees starve. Fortunately, bumblebees have a trick up their sleeves for when this happens. Consuelo De Moraes at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues discovered that worker bumblebees can make plants flower earlier than normal by using their mouthparts to pierce small holes in leaves. In a series of laboratory and outdoor experiments, the researchers found that bumblebees were more likely to pierce holes in the leaves of tomato plants and black mustard plants when deprived of food. The leaf damage caused the tomato plants to flower 30 days earlier than usual and the black mustard plants to flower 16 days earlier. It is still a mystery how the leaf damage promotes early blooming. Previous studies have found that plants sometimes speed up their flowering in response to stressors like intense light and drought, but the effects of insect damage haven’t been studied much. De Moraes and her colleagues were unable to induce early flowering by punching holes in the plant leaves themselves. This suggests that bees may provide additional cues that encourage flowering, like injecting chemicals from their saliva into the leaves when they pierce them. “We hope to explore this in future work,” she says. The ability of bumblebees to manipulate flowering times may help them to adapt to climate change, says Mark Mescher at ETH Zurich, who was also part of the study.
5-21-19 Nature: Bumblebees' 'clever trick' fools plants into flowering
Scientists have discovered a new behaviour among bumblebees that tricks plants into flowering early. Researchers found that when deprived of pollen, bumblebees will nibble on the leaves of flowerless plants. The damage done seems to fool the plant into flowering, sometimes up to 30 days earlier than normal. Writing in the journal Science, the scientists say they have struggled to replicate the bees' trick in the laboratory. With their fuzzy appearance and distinctive drone, bumblebees are hard to miss in gardens all over the world. Their dense, hairy bodies make them excellent pollinators for crops like tomatoes and blueberries. They are among the first bees to emerge each year and work a long season. Some colonies remain active through the winter in southern and urban areas of the UK. But despite their key role, bumblebees, like many other pollinators have seen their numbers tumble in recent decades. One recent study pointed to climate change, reporting that an increasing number of hot days in Europe and North America was boosting local extinction rates. But researchers have now made a discovery about bumblebees that could have relevance to their long-term survival. Scientists in Switzerland found that when the bees were deprived of pollen, they started to nibble on the leaves of plants that hadn't yet flowered. The bees used their proboscises and mandibles (mouthparts) to cut distinctively-shaped holes in the leaves. But the creatures didn't eat the material or use it in their nests. The damaged plants responded by blooming earlier than normal - in some cases up to 30 days ahead of schedule. "I think everything that we've found is consistent with the idea that the bees are damaging the plants and that that's an adaptation that brings flowers online earlier and that benefits the bees," said Dr Mark Mescher, one of the authors from ETH Zurich, told BBC News.
2-28-20 Stung by crime
The booming almond industry in California is inspiring a new organized crime, said Oliver Milman in TheGuardian.com: beehive heists. There were 1,048 reported hive thefts in California in 2017, compared with just 101 in 2015. Authorities know where the stolen bees tend to wind up—in California’s fertile Central Valley, where farmland filled with “lettuce, grapes, lemons, apricots, and more requires pollination from far more bees than naturally live in the area.” Almonds are the “main driver of the honeybee demand,” with 1.17 million acres of land requiring pollination “at a standard rate of two beehives an acre.” With demand rising and bee populations dropping, the price of a hive for pollination has grown to $200 and up. Reported thefts dropped recently after the arrest of two men who’d been hiding 2,500 hives in what authorities called “a chop shop for bees.”
2-9-20 Oscars 2020: Life lessons from Europe's last wild beekeeper
One of the more unlikely films competing in this weekend's Oscars is a fascinating story about a wild beekeeper in the Balkans. Honeyland has a strong ecological message, but it's the life story of the woman at the centre of the film that has struck a chord around the world. Honeyland is the first film to compete for both the best documentary award and best international feature film. The documentary's success is even more remarkable because it started almost accidentally. Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov were researching in a remote mountainous area of the country for a short nature documentary. They noticed beehives behind a rock on the mountain where they were filming. This led them to Hatidze Muratova, one of Europe's last wild beekeepers, who uses ancient methods passed down through the generations for harvesting wild honey. This was the beginning of a "crazy adventure" of three years, filming through scorching summers and freezing winters. After another year editing, their first feature film was born. Honeyland chronicles a period of Hatidze's life when her ancient methods of beekeeping came up against, and conflicted with, those of a newcomer to her remote home region. The directors say the film profoundly changed their lives. Honeyland has much to say about conserving nature, but its lessons are also about human life and relationships. "Half for me and half for you" is Hatidze's mantra, which she repeats as she tends to the bees on the mountain. But it's a message which is in danger of being lost in the modern world. Hatidze lives in Bekirlija, an abandoned village with no electricity, running water or roads, where she looks after her ailing mother. The honey she sells at the market in the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje, is her sole source of income. She takes only half of the honey, leaving the rest for the bees. She lives by that simple principle. "Sharing with bees and with nature is the key to her survival," says Stefanov.
1-31-20 Wisbech bees killed by 'morons' in hive attack
Two vandals branded "braindead morons" have been captured on CCTV attacking the hives of endangered bees. Conservationists believe as many as 10,000 rare bees may have died in the attack at Wisbech Castle, Cambridgeshire. The hives were established in the castle grounds last July in a bid to boost numbers of British black bees. A police spokeswoman called the attack a "cruel, unprovoked and completely unnecessary act of violence." CCTV footage, captured at about 05:15 GMT on 8 January, showed two people breaking into the castle grounds and lifting the lids off the hives, before kicking them and attacking the bees inside with sticks, police said. Steve Tierney, a councillor who chairs the Wisbech Castle Project, said on Facebook that the castle had been targeted by vandals before, but that "ridiculous and counterproductive heritage rules" prevented stronger security measures, such as wall spikes and anti-climb paint. Describing the culprits as "braindead morons", he said: "We had to make sure the bees were settled, and they've been doing well - but importantly they cannot be disturbed over the winter months. "These two people scaled the wall and went through black bin bags before smashing the lid off one of the hives. "They ran off and returned, setting about smashing them up. They may have been stung and came back for revenge." PC Kirsty Hulley, of Cambridgeshire Police, said castle staff were "devastated" by the attack. "They estimate as many as 10,000 rare bees have died, but are unable to check properly until March as further exposure to the cold air would kill the remaining bees. "It will cost the museum around £2,000 to restart the project in the spring." The native black bee was once considered to be extinct in Britain, but is hardier and darker than its European cousin, according to the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA).
1-31-20 Engineered honeybee gut bacteria trick attackers into self-destructing
Special microbes mount steady gene-silencing attacks on mites or viruses. Deadly, fat-sucking mites and wing-wrecking viruses, take note. Specially engineered gut microbes can defend honeybees by tricking their enemies into self-destruction. Rod-shaped Snodgrassella bacteria, common in bee guts, were engineered to release double-stranded RNA molecules that dial down gene activity in a mite or virus. The pest then sabotages itself by shutting down some of its own vital genes. This strategy highjacks a natural biological process called RNA interference, or RNAi (SN: 10/4/06). The gut bacteria churning out this targeted disinformation work “something like a living vaccine,” says microbiologist Sean Leonard of the University of Texas at Austin. The RNA’s targeted approach intrigues scientists interested in fighting pests or other problems while minimizing the chances of hurting innocent bystanders. Earlier work shows that directly dosing bees with the customized RNA also can work, Leonard says, but the stuff is expensive to make and degrades rapidly. A gut microbe, however, can keep making the RNA, replenishing the supply. In a simplified test, Leonard and colleagues targeted two of the big threats to honeybees in North America: fat-sucking, parasitic Varroa mites and the deformed wing virus that those mites spread among bees (SN: 1/18/19). In a setup with just young bees, the engineered gut microbes helped protect the bees, the scientists report in the Jan. 31 Science. For the mite test, the researchers tracked fates of the pests. (Collecting mites to spread among experimental bees is easy, Leonard says. Just find infested bees and dust them with powdered sugar. Mites drop off in an arthropod shower.) Mites were about 70 percent more likely to die within 10 days when feeding on bees with the booby-trapped gut microbes.
1-30-20 Genetically modified microbiome could protect honeybees from disease
Bacteria from the microbiome of honeybees have been genetically modified to protect the insects against lethal infections, which could help with the recovery of hives. European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are vital pollinators, but numerous factors such as disease and pests are slashing their numbers. A major concern for most bee species is colony collapse disorder, a global phenomenon that has wiped out large numbers of hives in recent years. Sean Leonard and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin used a technique called RNA interference (RNAi) to tackle two of the biggest global killers of bees: parasitic varroa mites and deformed wing virus (DWV). Both DWV and varroosis – the disease caused by the mites – are closely linked to colony collapse. The team engineered a bee gut bacterium called Snodgrassella alvi, a normal part of the bee microbiome, to express double-stranded RNA targeting either the DWV genome or essential genes in varroa. Many organisms naturally respond to such strands by switching off genes with complementary sequences, making it useful for gene editing. Though the RNA can be injected into the bees directly, a large amount of it would need to be made. This is expensive and “you can’t inject 80,000 individual bees”, says Leonard, which is about the number in a hive. Instead, his team dunked 980 honeybees in a sugar solution containing the engineered S. alvi. The bees then ingest the bacteria when they clean the solution off each other. When a bee encounters the virus, its RNAi response is triggered to switch off the viral genes, while mites feeding on the bees can take up the RNA and die. The team found that in bees infected with DWV, those with an engineered microbiome had about a 40 per cent survival rate after 10 days compared with around 25 per cent for control bees. Mites also died more quickly when feeding on bees with engineered microbiomes, reducing the risk of varroosis.
1-22-20 Collectors find plenty of bees but far fewer species than in the 1950s
A look at global insect collections suggests bee diversity has dropped sharply since the 1990s. Far fewer bee species are buzzing across Earth today, following a steep decline in bee diversity during the last three decades, according to an analysis of bee collections and observations going back a century. About half as many bee species are turning up in current collecting efforts for museums and other collections compared with in the 1950s, when surveys counted around 1,900 species a year, scientists report December 10 at bioRxiv.org. That high diversity in collections endured for several decades, but then began to plummet around the 1990s, likely reflecting a real drop in global bee diversity, according to the study, which is under peer review. “This is the first study suggesting that bee decline is a global process, and that the most significant changes have occurred in recent years,” says Margarita López-Uribe, a bee evolutionary ecologist at Penn State who was not part of the new research. The new work evaluates global trends in bee diversity since the 1920s by tapping the database of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. This international data-sharing network holds what López-Uribe describes as “the most comprehensive dataset of insect collection records worldwide,” including photos of bees in the field and of museum specimens dating back to the 18th century. Previous bee studies have reported falling populations, but evidence has often been limited to Europe and North America. Numbers of western honeybees (Apis mellifera) have been decreasing in North America and Europe (SN: 6/20/19), for example, but have increased in Asia, Africa and South America. For bees overall, though, the global situation was unclear.
12-21-19 Greece's secret to perfect honey
Few countries love honey and revere beekeepers more than Greece, and perhaps no country has a deeper history in this craft. According to mythology, Greece's first keeper of bees was the demigod Aristaeus, who was said to have learned beekeeping as a child from the Nymphs who raised him and to later pass his knowledge to humans. He "invented the riddled hive… and made a settled place for the labors of the wandering bees," wrote the poet Nonnus in his epic fifth century poem, Dionysiaca. Nonnus also credited Aristaeus with developing the first bee-suit, and to have been reared on nectar and ambrosia, the honey-based foods of the Gods. Mythology aside, beekeeping may have come to Greece as early as 1500 BCE, when laws promulgated by the Hittites outlined the punishment for theft of a hive (five shekels of silver, about the same as for stealing a sheep). In Athens, archaeologists have excavated cylindrical hives, made from pottery dating to 400 BCE, which often were reused as coffins for children. Today, the average Greek consumes approximately 3.6 pounds of honey a year, the largest amount per capita in the European Union and more than double U.S. consumption. According to a 2013 study, Greece has the greatest density of bee colonies in Europe, with 11.4 colonies per square kilometer. (The U.S., by comparison, averages only one colony in twice that amount of land.) The country also produces some of the finest honey in the world. At the 2019 London Honey Awards, judges bestowed prizes on 17 Greek honey producers, crowning them with three of five possible platinum awards. While bee colonies in the U.S. have been famously dying at a catastrophic rate for at least 10 years, dragging down American honey production, Greece's honey industry has remained stable, producing honey that is widely praised. Indeed, Greek scientists have found that bee colonies on Mount Olympus, mythical home of the twelve Greek Gods, produce several varieties of honey that are among the most potent in the world, containing antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties.
12-13-19 A biochemist’s extraction of data from honey honors her beekeeper father
The tests could be used to figure out what bees are pollinating and which pathogens they carry. One scientist’s sweet tribute to her father may one day give beekeepers clues about their colonies’ health, as well as help warn others when crop diseases or pollen allergies are about to strike. Those are all possible applications that biochemistry researcher Rocío Cornero of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., sees for her work on examining proteins in honey. Cornero described her unpublished work December 9 at the annual joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Amateur beekeepers often don’t understand what is stressing bees in their hives, whether lack of water, starvation or infection with pathogens, says Cornero, whose father kept bees before his death earlier this year. “What we see in the honey can tell us a story about the health of that colony,” she says. Bees are like miniature scientists that fly and sample a wide variety of environmental conditions, says cell biologist Lance Liotta, Cornero’s mentor at George Mason. As bees digest pollen, soil and water, bits of proteins from other organisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses also end up in the insects’ stomachs. Honey, in turn, is basically bee vomit, Liotta says, and contains a record of virtually everything the bee came in contact with, as well as proteins from the bees themselves. “The information archive in honey is unbelievable,” Liotta says. But until now, scientists have had a hard time studying proteins in honey. “It’s so gooey and sticky and hard to work with,” he says. Sugars in honey gum up lab equipment usually used to isolate proteins.
11-12-19 Power lines may mess with honeybees’ behavior and ability to learn
The insects might suffer neurological effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields. Power lines could be messing with honeybees by emitting electromagnetic fields that can alter the insects’ behavior and ability to learn. In the lab, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were more aggressive toward other bees after being exposed to electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, at strengths similar to what they might experience at ground level under electricity transmission lines, researchers report October 10 in PLOS One. Those exposed bees also were slower to learn to respond to a new threat than unexposed bees were. “The reductions in learning are pretty concerning,” says Sebastian Shepherd. The entomologist worked on the new study at the University of Southampton in England before moving to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “These were bees that were very happy and healthy” before being exposed to EMFs in the study. The finding may be one clue to help explain the recent and mysterious decline in managed U.S. honeybee colonies. The insects provide an estimated $15 billion in annual agricultural value by pollinating U.S. crops. But beekeepers reported that colonies last year experienced their worst winter die-off in more than a decade (SN: 6/20/19). And in preceding years, some colonies’ worker bees simply vanished (SN: 1/17/18). Researchers believe the problem isn’t due to a single cause, but instead multiple stressors including getting jostled during a cross-country move to new farm fields or flying through fields laced with pesticides. Power lines, it turns out, might also be stressing bees out. Altogether, stressors could be weakening bees so they’re less capable of surviving disease or extreme weather, Shepherd says.
10-19-19 Farmed bees are mating with native bees - and that could endanger them
Farmed bees used to pollinate crops in commercial greenhouses are interbreeding with the local bees — and the potential consequences could be dire. Every year, more than one million commercially reared bee colonies are used in greenhouses around the world to help pollinate crops. But these are typically non-native bees, and introducing them to new areas is risky. If they escape, they can compete with local bees for food and nesting resources. They can also spread mites, viruses, and other diseases to native populations, says Sevan Suni at the University of San Francisco. On top of all that, Suni and her colleagues suspected that the farmed bees may also interbreed with local bees and that this could cause further trouble. To investigate, the researchers captured 66 bees in the wild in Andalucía, Spain and analysed their genes. This showed that 63 per cent of the bees had hybridised with the commercial bees. Some of them were found 60 kilometres from the nearest greenhouse. This suggests the native and commercially bred bees are readily interbreeding. The hybridisation can threaten the long-term survival of the native bees, says Ignasi Bartomeus at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain, who also worked the study. “Diversity is the best insurance against [environmental] perturbations because it creates variability from which to adapt to new situations,” he says. “If we homogenise the genetic diversity of some species, we are losing this insurance.” Bartomeus says that the commercial bees hibernate in the winter, while the native bees go into dormancy in the hot Mediterranean summer. “A potential threat is that southern bumblebees may lose their adaptations to warm environments – which is really critical given the climate warming trend we are experiencing,” he says.
10-10-19 Bees are better at counting if they are penalised for their mistakes
Honeybees may be better at counting when they are punished for making mistakes compared to when they are simply rewarded for correct answers. We already had some evidence suggesting bees can count up to four. But it turns out they may be capable of grasping larger numbers too. Scarlett Howard at the University of Toulouse in France says she thought we might be underestimating the numerical abilities of bees, which prompted her colleagues to investigate further. The team first trained bees to enter a chamber from where they could see two channels with images at their ends. One channel always had an image showing four shapes, while the other had an image bearing between one and 10 shapes.The bees were then split into two groups. The first were trained to pick the image with four shapes, getting a reward of sweet sucrose solution for choosing that and bitter tasting quinine solution for choosing the other image. The second group were rewarded with sucrose solution for picking the four-shape image, but not penalised for choosing the other. The team then separately tested whether the bees could identify images showing four shapes compared to images showing five, six, seven or eight shapes. They were again put in a chamber from where they could see the images at the ends of two separate channels and the researchers counted how many times the bees chose the image with four shapes.They found that only the bees that had been conditioned with both rewards and penalties could choose the image with four shapes at a level higher than chance. When choosing between images showing four and five shapes, the bees went for four 59 per cent of time, suggesting they can understand numbers beyond four. Lars Chittka at Queen Mary University of London compares the findings to the stick and carrot method. He says when there is a punishment for getting an answer incorrect, the motivation to be correct is heightened.
10-10-19 Natural 'bumblebee medicine' found in heather
Preserving heather in the natural landscape could have benefits for wild bees, according to new research. Nectar - and therefore honey - from the plant contains a natural "bumblebee medicine", which is active against a harmful bee parasite. Heather is a major foraging plant for wild bees, which are under pressure from habitat loss, disease and pesticides. Lime trees and the strawberry tree also contained the "medicine" but at lower levels. Heather is a natural part of heathland and moorland, where it is an important source of nectar for wild bees and other pollinators. The purple blaze of heather is becoming a less common sight, as heathlands and moorlands are lost. Lowland heathland, with its gorse, grasses and heather, is being given up to farming or conifer plantations, while upland moorland is at risk from grazing and burning. The scientists say continued loss and degradation of heathlands due to human actions may lead to the loss of a major medicinal plant for pollinators. "Our work shows that heathlands may be even more valuable than previously thought by providing wild bumblebees with a natural medicinal nectar as protection against a major parasite," said co-researcher Dr Hauke Koch of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.The researchers from Kew and Royal Holloway, University of London, investigated plants for medicinal properties that could protect pollinators in the wild. They tested nectar from 17 plants, including ivy, heather, clover and dandelion, for medicinal effects on a parasite found in the gut of bumblebees. Nectar from heather (Calluna vulgaris) had the most potent effect, due to a single chemical known as callunene. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unendo) and lime trees also had some medicinal activity. "Understanding which plants are needed to maintain a healthy balance between bees and their parasites can help us restore habitats that maximise bee health," said Prof Mark Brown from Royal Holloway.
8-27-19 Honeybee brain upgrades may help the insects find food
Changes in honeybee neurons may help the insects decode their fellow foragers’ waggle dances. A honeybee that’s been promoted to forager has upgrades in her nerve cells, too. Vibration-sensing nerve cells, or neurons, are more specialized in bees tasked with finding food compared with younger, inexperienced adult bees, researchers report August 26 in eNeuro. This neural refinement may help forager bees better sense specific air vibrations produced by their fellow foragers during waggle dances — elaborate routines that share information about food location, distance and quality (SN Online: 1/24/14). Researchers compared certain neurons in adult bees that had emerged from their cells one to three days earlier to neurons of forager bees, which were older than 10 days. In the foragers, these neurons had more refined shapes, the team found. These vibration-detecting cells, called DL-INT-1 neurons, appear sparser in certain areas, with fewer message-receiving tendrils called dendrites. Refined dendrites may be a sign that these cells are more selective in their connections. And in foragers, these neurons also appear to handle information more efficiently than their counterparts in the young adult bees, experiments with electrodes reveal. These changes in shape and behavior suggest that in foragers, neurons become adept at decoding vibrations produced by other foragers’ waggle dances, say computational neuroscientist Ajayrama Kumaraswamy of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Germany and colleagues. But it’s not clear whether foraging experience in the fields or the passage of time itself prompts these refinements.
8-22-19 Huge beehive discovered inside ceiling
A giant hive was removed from a woman's house in Brisbane, Australia. The ten-month-old hive weighed 50kg and was holding 60,000 bees.
8-21-19 We could use bees' honey to track environmental lead pollution
Bees’ honey is a surprisingly effective tool for monitoring lead in the environment and could be used to track pollution in areas where more established methods of sampling are hard to organise. We know that bees carry tiny amounts of pollutants, including lead, to their hives after touching plants, flowers and simply flying through the air. So Kate Smith at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her colleagues analysed honey samples from dozens of Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) hives to see what was in them. They found that the ratio of two types of lead atoms, lead-206 and lead-208, varied in the samples depending on where the hives were. Honey that came from land that is used heavily by humans had a different signature to honey that came from rural areas. This is probably because the lead comes from different sources, perhaps the burning of fuel in urban areas and from geological sources in the countryside. Rocks naturally give off tiny amounts of lead over time. The levels of lead found in the honey were well below recommended limits, meaning it is safe to eat, says Smith. At the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Barcelona, this week Smith reported that honey can provide estimates of environmental lead concentrations that are similar in accuracy to those obtained by more established sampling methods, such as looking at topsoil and particles in the air. She also measured bee tissue and found it matched too. “The gradient matches beautifully,” she says. This means honey could be a useful tool in places that don’t have established infrastructure for pollution monitoring, says Smith. The use of bees for monitoring environmental contamination is potentially better than existing methods, says Mark Taylor at Macquarie University in Australia who undertook similar research on honey in a mining town.
8-14-19 How killer bees evolved into chiller bees in just one decade
While killer bees terrorised the US, in Puerto Rico, an extraordinary accident of evolution has transformed them into a beacon of hope against the threat of insectogeddon. STEPPING out of his house to survey the destruction, Hermes Conde felt like he had been transported to another world. “It was as if an atomic bomb had hit. Nothing was standing,” he says. “I couldn’t recognise the landscape around my own home.” It was 21 September 2017 and Hurricane Maria had just torn Puerto Rico to shreds. An estimated 2975 people died in the worst natural disaster the Caribbean island has ever witnessed. From the early hours of 20 September through to mid-afternoon the next day, Maria bisected Puerto Rico like a 100-kilometre-wide buzz saw. It plucked up trees and hurled roofs from homes like Frisbees. The pounding rain sent flash floods, metres deep, rushing into populated areas. Downed trees and power lines blocked the roads. Electricity and water supplies were cut off for months after the storm. Conde’s first priority was to get petrol for his generator. It would take him 23 hours on foot, but fuel wasn’t the only thing he was looking for. Conde is a beekeeper and along the way he tapped into a network of fellow apiarists trying to discover the fate of their insects. The situation looked bleak. Hurricane Maria had almost annihilated Puerto Rico’s bees, but Conde was determined to rescue the survivors. It may sound like a strange mission in the middle of such chaos, but these are no ordinary bees. They are among the most incredible insects in modern evolutionary history. In just a decade, they have mysteriously transformed from killers to docile honey makers. They may even hold secrets that will help us breed disease-resistant bees in the future.
8-3-19 Bees' very hairy tongues help them mop up different types of nectar
Bumblebees can sup on thick nectar just as easily as they slurp up thin nectar – and now we know why. It’s all down to the tiny hairs on their tongues. Evolution has created some strange and surprising tools to help animals drink liquid. A close look at a bee’s tongue reveals a long rod-like stalk that is covered in thin hair-like protrusions. This makes it look a little like a tiny mop. When bees are feeding, they quickly dip their tongue in and out of a flower to collect the sweet nectar. Pascal Damman at the University of Mons, Belgium, and his colleagues analysed videos of bees (Bombus terrestris audax) feeding from nectar with different viscosities, and made an unexpected discovery. They found that regardless of the thickness of the fluid, the bees lapped it up at the same rate, collecting the same volume of liquid each time. That’s a surprise because in theory, thicker liquids should be more likely than thin liquids to stick to an object dipped into the solution. So Damman and his colleagues decided to try to mimic the action of bees’ tongues by 3D printing rods that were either smooth or covered in tiny structures to mimic the bees’ hair-like protrusions. They then dipped them into fluids of different viscosities. It turned out that the distance between the microstructures on the rods explained the puzzle. If they are spaced close enough to one another then liquid is automatically pulled between them by what is called capillary action. This capillary action is fast enough to fill all of the gaps with nectar each time the bee dips its tongue in, and holds the liquid without dripping. Like a mop and bucket, the bee squeezes the nectar out of its tongue hair when the tongue returns to the mouth. Patrick Spicer of the University of New South Wales, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, says we often look at fluids in terms of their large-scale behaviour because humans are large animals. From this perspective, liquids that flow slowly appear thick.
5-30-19 Wild bees' nest made entirely out of plastic discovered in Argentina
Plastic waste is just about everywhere on the planet at this point, and some animals have been found to adapt to our litterbug ways. In Argentina, scientists have made the first report of a bee’s nest made only out of plastic pieces. At the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, Mariana Allasino of the National Agricultural Technology Institute in Argentina, and her team were studying chicory pollinators in San Juan. At the edges of the crops, they put out 63 trap nests made of wood with holes where bees can use material to build brood cells. These are similar in shape to the tubes in honeycomb and hold larvae while they develop. The team checked the trap nests monthly, finding only three nests. Two had brood cells made of petals and mud and were created by a species called Megachile jenseni. They confirmed this when five adults of the species emerged from the cells. The other nest was made entirely of two types of plastic – thin, blue strips the consistency of disposable shopping bags, and white pieces that were a bit thicker. In this nest, one brood cell had dead larva in it, one was empty and may have contained an unidentified adult that emerged, and one cell was unfinished. “I find it rather sad, but interesting. It begs for a choice test in an enclosure to determine why this plastic might be more appealing or adaptive than use of natural materials,” says Theresa Pitts-Singer at the US Department of Agriculture. She says it will be important to determine whether plastic lining in brood cells can be harmful to the bees, as more trapped moisture may lead to higher pathogen levels, and plastic may be toxic in some way as it breaks down.
5-2-19 Older bees pass on immunity-boosting molecules to other bees in jelly
Bee colonies are even more of a superorganism than we thought. When disease strikes, bees can add immunity-providing molecules to the jellies they feed to larvae, to give the hive a kind of collective immune system. A decade ago, Eyal Maori at Cambridge University and colleagues tested a new way of treating diseases in bees. The treatment was based on a technique RNA interference, which involves feeding the bees double-stranded RNA molecules that shut down specific genes. Many insects naturally produce these double-stranded RNA molecules as an immune response to infections by viruses, bacteria or fungi. The treatment worked, but strangely kept on working for months, even after the bees fed the RNAs were dead, suggesting the protection was somehow being passed on to young bees. Now investigating this further, Maori and his team found that bees pass RNAs on to other bees by adding them to the worker and royal jellies that they secrete to feed larvae. What’s more, bees produce special proteins that bind to RNAs to protect the molecules and prevent them from breaking down. This is the first time that individuals of the same species have been shown to exchange RNA in this way, says Maori. When the team sequenced the natural RNAs in the jellies, they found RNAs corresponding to ten viruses, suggesting that bees start making and sharing disease-targeting RNAs when infections strike. Bees may use RNAs for more than defence. The team suspect that they are the key ingredient in the royal jelly that makes larvae turn into queens rather than workers. Bees may also use RNAs to prepare future generations for the specific environment they will face. “This could be a form of social epigenetics,” Maori says.
4-26-19 The birds and the bees
The birds and the bees, after Pornhub.com introduced a new “Beesexual” channel, featuring explicit footage of bees pollinating flowers. The site will make donations to a bee-conservation charity to help “ensure that bees continue to fornicate and pollinate.”
4-20-19 Bees living on Notre-Dame cathedral roof survive blaze
Notre-Dame's smallest residents have survived the devastating fire which destroyed most of the cathedral's roof and toppled its famous spire. Some 200,000 bees living in hives on the roof were initially thought to have perished in the blaze. However Nicolas Géant, the cathedral's beekeeper, has confirmed that the bees are alive and buzzing. Mr Géant has looked after the cathedral's three beehives since 2013, when they were installed. That was part of an initiative to boost bee numbers across Paris. The hives sit on top of the sacristy by Notre-Dame's south side, around 30m (98 ft) below the main roof. As a result, Mr Géant says they remained untouched by the flames.European bees - unlike other species - stay by their hive after sensing danger, gorging on honey and working to protect their queen. High temperatures would have posed the biggest risk, but Mr Géant explained that any smoke would have simply intoxicated them. "Instead of killing them, the carbon dioxide makes them drunk, puts them to sleep," he told AP. Beekeepers commonly use smoke to sedate the insects and gain access to their hive.
3-11-19 The first male bees spotted babysitting are mostly stepdads
The behavior may have evolved from males lurking to mate. Scientists have discovered the first case of male bees babysitting, and it turns out that these males often aren’t biological bee dads but hopeful stepdads of the youngsters. Females of a small bluish-black Mediterranean bee (Ceratina nigrolabiata) dig out the pith of plant stems to make a nest, where a mom lays her eggs. Unlike honeybees, these are solitary bees with no colony of daughter-workers. Without that help, the mom herself must collect nectar and pollen to feed the young. But these are no latchkey larvae. In 78 nests that researchers watched for 90 minutes, an adult male bee stayed in the nest’s entrance, rump outward, while the mom was out foraging. A male rear blocked a menacing ant that researchers put at the entrance in 41 attempted attacks. And in more than half of these attempted invasions, males pushed the ant out of the nest, says behavioral ecologist Michael Mikát of Charles University in Prague. When mom buzzes back with food, she scratches against the male’s rump, and he moves to allow her into the nest. Then he goes back to being a dad door, or rather, a stepdad door. In 265 nests sampled, only 29 percent of the babysitting males had fathered even one offspring that they were guarding, Mikát and colleagues report the week of March 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
2-20-19 Bees prefer to turn right and it helps them decide where to live
Derek Zoolander isn’t the only one who prefers to turn in one direction. Honeybees have a strong tendency to turn right when they enter an open cavity. This bias may help them make a collective decision about where to build new nests. Directional biases exist in many animals, but they may be particularly important in social species for promoting cohesion within the group. To see if honeybees have such a bias, Thomas O’Shea-Wheller of Louisiana State University allowed 30 bees to explore two boxes. One was open inside and the other contained a branching maze of narrow tunnels. Out of 180 trials in the open cavity, the bees immediately turned right on 86 occasions but turned left just 35 times. On the remaining 59 occasions they flew straight ahead. What’s more, when they turned right in the experiment, they did so more quickly than when they turned left, suggesting it’s a more automatic response. However, in the branching maze they showed no preference for right or left. Bees explore spaces such as rock cavities and hollow trees when they are looking for a new nest site. They choose a site once a certain number of scouts are in the same place. Having a consistent behavioural pattern might be important in this situation for helping the group come to a decision, says O’Shea-Wheller. “By entering in the same fashion and turning the same way, they are more likely to meet each other and get a better idea of the popularity of the site.” It might also promote social cohesion in bees’ day-to-day life, when foragers return to the colony with food and water. Honeybees have more smell receptors on their right antennae than their left antennae, so the right-side preference also makes sense from a physiological perspective. Previous research has found that ants also have a directional bias when they enter a cavity – although they prefer to turn left.
2-6-19 Bees can pass a simple maths test but they might just be cheating
A big brain may not be necessary to do maths. Honeybees have passed a test of arithmetic that may require them to add and subtract, although others have questioned if that is really the case. In the test, bees were first shown a picture containing between one and five shapes. Then they were given a choice of two chambers, each with another picture by the entrance. One chamber contained a drop of sugar solution as a reward; the other contained bad-tasting quinine solution. If the shapes in the first picture were blue, the bees had to add one to the number of shapes to choose the correct chamber. If the shapes were yellow, they had to subtract one. Fourteen bees each went through the exercise 100 times during the training phase. In subsequent tests, bees chose the correct answer 67.5 per cent of the time – significantly better than chance. The correct answers in the tests were numbers that were not rewarded during training, so the bees could not get it right by simply associating a number with a reward. Sometimes the incorrect answer was in the same numerical direction as the right answer, so the test was more complicated than understanding whether the answer is bigger or smaller than the first number. This is a hard task for bees, says Adrian Dyer of RMIT University, Australia. It requires them to memorise the colour rule and apply it to the number of shapes in working memory. Clint Perry at Queen Mary University of London, UK, thinks the idea that bees are doing arithmetic doesn’t add up. If the bees simply choose the picture most similar to the picture they saw first, they could get 70 per cent correct.
1-14-19 Rich people’s gardens are better for bees and other pollinators
Pollinating insects, such as bees, seem to prefer richer areas. This may be because gardens in wealthier areas typically have a wider range of flowers. A team surveyed the distribution of plants and pollinating insects in four cities in the UK: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading. They found that residential, allotments and community gardens supported a greater abundance of pollinators than other types of urban land, such as parks and road verges. “This is consistent with the so-called ‘luxury effect’ whereby socioeconomic status is often positively correlated with urban biodiversity,” wrote the team in their paper. “In our case, the effect is driven by the greater quality of floral resources for pollinators in wealthier neighbourhoods.” Up to 50 times more bees were found in gardens than in areas with man-made surfaces including car parks and industrial estates. The authors recommend increasing the number of flowers in parks and other public green spaces and providing more allotments in towns and cities to increase the number of pollinating insects. “By understanding the impact of each urban land use on pollinators, whether it’s gardens, allotments, road verges or parks, we can make cities better places for pollinators,” says Jane Memmott at the University of Bristol, who runs the Urban Pollinators Project.
1-8-19 Flowers hear bees and make sweeter nectar when they’re buzzing nearby
Evening primrose flowers can hear approaching bees and quickly make their nectar sweeter in response to the sound. Lilach Hadany and colleagues at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, collected nectar from flowers before and after exposing them to a range of sounds, including recordings of bees and synthetic noises. Within three minutes of exposure to bee sounds or artificial sounds of a similar frequency, the flowers increased the concentration of sugar in their nectar by 20 per cent on average. There was no change in sugar levels in flowers played no sound, or higher-frequency sounds. Bees are highly sensitive to differences in sugar concentration, preferring to go after higher calorie nectar. By improving the rewards on offer, plants may benefit by encouraging the pollinators to spend longer visiting the plant, or to visit more flowers of the same species. Enhancing sugar levels when pollinators approach might help a plant save energy in the long run, and reduce the risk of nectar being degraded by microbes or stolen by ants. “Nectar can be a significant energy investment, and thus keeping a constantly high level of sugar can be wasteful,” says Hadany. How plants detect the sound of bees is unknown. However, using highly sensitive laser instruments, the researchers found that the evening primrose flowers vibrate when played recordings of bee or moth sounds. Hadany thinks that flowers may receive sound pressure in a similar way to ears. When petals were removed from flowers, they vibrated less when played the sound clips, suggesting petals may help receive or amplify pollinator sounds.
12-4-18 Rebel honeybee workers lay eggs when their queen is away
The rebel workers are also more likely to infiltrate other colonies to have offspring. Even honeybee queens have rebellious kids. In a colony of European honeybees (Apis mellifera), only the queen lays eggs that hatch into female workers who maintain the hive and nurse the young. But at times a colony experiences periods of queenlessness, when the old queen has left and a new one isn’t ready. Some of the queen’s left-behind worker daughters seize this chance to lay their own eggs — and sometimes in an entirely new colony, finds a study published online October 31 in Ecology and Evolution. The workers’ opportunistic egg-laying behavior was discovered in 2012 by researchers led by evolutionary biologist Karolina Kuszewska of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. With no queen around to release chemicals that stunt workers’ ovarian growth, these “rebel workers” can lay eggs. Since rebel workers still do not mate as a queen bee would, they produce only sons that live only to mate. A departed queen’s replacement comes from a group of daughters born to fight one another until one survivor becomes the new queen. Rebel workers are also more adventurous than normal worker bees, the new study shows. When the researchers tracked bees that were raised without queens, 21 to 39 percent of rebel workers flew to one of dozens of other colonies, compared with 3 to 8 percent of normal workers. No surprise: Those rebel workers were also more likely to infiltrate colonies that had no queen.
11-28-18 The Honey Factory review – the buzz of exploring honeybees’ secrets
A real insider book explains why the saying busy as a bee has honeybees all wrong – and how studying them in the wild could be good news for them and us. IF IT wasn’t for the honey and the fragrant, versatile wax, we would probably have steered well clear of bees. Early humans are thought to have discovered the delights of wild honey some 2 million years ago, with bee domestication dating to 9000 years ago in what is now Turkey and North Africa. Initially, the result was a lot of stings and destroyed nests. But the keeping of bees evolved, with advantages for both parties. So claim the authors of The Honey Factory, Jürgen Tautz, a bee researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, and Diedrich Steen, a beekeeper for over 20 years. They have joined forces to write a fascinating book that explores hive life, from the roles of honeycomb cells to bee communication. They show how 300 years of hive use has helped keepers hone the craft. Artificial chambers now allow us to extract bee products but leave the colony relatively intact, for example. There are misconceptions to correct, say Tautz and Steen. For example, the saying “busy as a bee” is far from the truth. The authors say honeybees are quite lazy and achieve great feats only by teamwork; some experiments show foraging bees make three or four flights per day. But if 25,000 foragers bring 50 milligrams of nectar per trip, that still makes an impressive 5 kilograms daily. Their famous waggle dance is misunderstood, too. It has long been seen as a sophisticated form of communication used to convey the exact location of food to their hivemates. But recent work by Tautz and others shows that, while the dance may tell the bees where to head, it isn’t that precise. In fact, when a food source is remote, bees rely on experienced foragers carrying the scent of the flowers they are seeking to guide them.
11-28-18 Some honeybees have four parents or no mother – and we don’t know why
We’ve still got plenty to learn about “the birds and the bees”. A close looker has revealed that some honeybees born partly male and partly female have up to four parents – and some of them have no mother at all. In bees, unfertilised eggs develop into males, or drones, who seek out queens to mate with. Fertilised eggs usually develop into female workers. However, queens mate with at least 10 males to produce new colony members, and more than one sperm enters each egg. In a few rare instances, individual bees can end up with some tissue derived from the fertilised egg, which is female, and some from extra sperm, which is male. An organism that has male and female reproductive organs is called a hermaphrodite – but organisms, like the bees, with both male and female tissue throughout the body are known as gynandromorphs. Sarah Aamidor and colleagues at the University of Sydney, Australia, studied 11 gynandromorph honeybees from a single colony to learn more about how these individuals develop. Five of them had normal worker ovaries, but three others had “queen-like” ovaries, containing larger numbers of tubes called ovarioles. One had normal male reproductive organs, and two had partial male organs. Genetic tests revealed the gynandromorphs’ unusual family histories. Nine of them had two or three fathers and one mother. One had no mother and two fathers, resulting from the fusion of two sperm.
11-19-18 Hemp fields offer a late-season pollen source for stressed bees
Low-THC cannabis attracts a wide range of bee species collecting food for larvae. Fields of hemp might become a late-season pollen bonanza for bees. Industrial hemp plants, the no-high varieties of cannabis, are becoming a more familiar sight for American bees as states create pilot programs for legal growing. Neither hemp nor the other strains of the Cannabis sativa species grown for recreational or medicinal uses offer insects any nectar, and all rely on wind to spread pollen. Still, a wide variety of bees showed up in two experimental hemp plots during a one-month trapping survey by entomology student Colton O’Brien of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Bees in 23 out of the 66 genera known to live in Colorado tumbled into O’Brien’s traps, he reported November 11 at Entomology 18, the annual meeting of the U.S. and two Canadian entomological societies. O’Brien and his adviser, Arathi Seshadri, think this is the first survey of bees in cannabis fields. “You walk through fields and you hear buzzing everywhere,” O’Brien said. He caught big bumblebees, tiny metallic-green sweat bees and many others clambering around in the abundant greenish-yellow pollen shed by the male flowers.
7-16-18 Honeybees gang up to roast invading hornets alive — at a terrible cost
The worker bees that form “hot defensive bee balls” are effectively kamikaze fighters, with the heat from the ball shortening their life expectancy. When hornets attack, bees know what to do. A few hundred workers can swarm into balls around hornets and roast them alive with their body heat. The formation of such “hot defensive bee balls” was first described in 1995 in Japanese honeybees. Now we know the defence is something of a kamikaze mission for the bees involved. When hornets attack a hive to carry off bees to eat, a group of worker bees quickly surround the intruder. The bees vibrate their wing muscles to generate temperatures of about 46oC for more than 30 minutes, enough to kill the hornets. It’s crucial they deploy the balls quickly, otherwise the hornet releases pheromones that attracts reinforcements. Entomologist Atsushi Ugajin at Tamagawa University near Tokyo began wondering about the costs to the honeybees. He wondered if heat exposure in the balls might reduce their life expectancy. To find out, he and his colleagues marked about 350 Japanese honeybee workers with colours to record their age in days. Then they divided a batch of bees that were 15-20 days old into two groups, one of which was allowed to form hot balls and one of which was kept in the hive at 32o C. Workers typically live for several weeks. The bees that avoided the hot balls were all dead 16 days after the ball, but the ones that took part were all dead within 10 days. But what happens when another hornet inevitably attacks? Hornets often attack hives 30 times a week in the autumn. So Ugajin performed another experiment, exposing the bees to a second hornet attack. It turned out that battle-hardened bees that had joined in the first ball were more likely to help out in a second ball.
7-8-18 Why humans, and Big Macs, depend on bees
Thor Hanson talks about his new book, Buzz. When you hear the word bee, the image that pops to mind is probably a honeybee. Maybe a bumblebee. But for conservation biologist Thor Hanson, author of the new book Buzz, the world is abuzz with thousands of kinds of bees, each as beautiful and intriguing as the flowers on which they land. Speaking from his “raccoon shack” on San Juan Island in Washington — a backyard shed converted to an office and bee-watching space, and named for its previous inhabitants — Hanson shares what he’s learned about how bees helped drive human evolution, the amazing birds that lead people to honey, and what a Big Mac would look like without bees. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
6-7-18 Bees join an exclusive crew of animals that get the concept of zero
Honeybees can pass a test of ranking ‘nothing’ as less than one. A little brain can be surprisingly good at nothing. Honeybees are the first invertebrates to pass a test of recognizing where zero goes in numerical order, a new study finds. Even small children struggle with recognizing “nothing” as being less than one, says cognitive behavioral scientist Scarlett Howard of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. But honeybees trained to fly to images of greater or fewer dots or whazzits tended to rank a blank image as less than one, Howard and colleagues report in the June 8 Science. Despite decades of discoveries, nonhuman animals still don’t get due credit outside specialist circles for intelligence, laments Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London, who has explored various mental capacities of bees. For the world at large, he emphasizes that the abilities described in the new paper are “remarkable.” Researchers recognize several levels of complexity in grasping zero. Most animals, or maybe all, can understand the simplest level — just recognizing that the absence of something differs from its presence, Howard says. Grasping the notion that absence could fit into a sequence of quantities, though, seems harder. Previously, only some primates such as chimps and vervet monkeys, plus an African gray parrot named Alex, have demonstrated this level of understanding of the concept of zero (SN: 12/10/16, p. 22).
6-6-18 Bees aren’t just smart, they’re sensitive too
Far from being mindless pollen-collecting drones, bees can solve problems, make choices and have reactions that look suspiciously like human emotions. AS YOU watch a bee bumbling about on a summer’s day, you might assume nothing special is going on. We have come to accept that these humble insects are little more than mindless drones buzzing around on the autopilot program of biological instinct. We presumed that they lacked individuality and simply slaved mindlessly for the larger purposes of the hive. But, under the close scrutiny of imaginative scientists, we are now learning that bees actually have unique personalities that enable them to solve problems, make choices and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions. “Bees are capable of behaviour that rivals in complexity that of some simple mammals,” says Andrew Barron at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. All with a brain the size of a mustard seed. We have known for decades that bees working collectively are capable of great things – not least symbolic language in the form of their waggle dance, which they use to share information about the location of food sources. Then findings started trickling in that showed individual bees deserved more credit. They can follow intricate rules, distinguish between patterns in nature, sort sensory stimuli by shape and colour, and even have a rudimental ability for mathematics. But in the past few years apian skills have been shown to have truly mind-boggling complexity.
4-6-18 Wasps drum with their stomachs to tell each other about food
German yellowjacket wasps alert each other to food by drumming their abdomens against the nest wall, in a wasp equivalent of the famous honeybee “waggle dance”. Wasps literally drum up interest in food. They bang their abdomens against the walls of their nests, and it now seems this informs other wasps that food is available. It is the first time that wasps have been shown to communicate in this way. Several species of wasp are known to perform “gastral drumming”. From time to time, they rapidly pummel their abdomens against their nest walls in a series of short bursts. The scientists who first reported this behaviour in the 1960s thought it may have been a way for wasps to communicate that they were hungry. Observational studies suggested that, if a colony was starved of food, the wasps would drum more, as if in anguish. In response to drumming, other wasps started moving more, foraging more, and performing trophallaxis: regurgitating food to share with their nestmates. However, the idea that gastral drumming communicates hunger was never tested empirically. Meanwhile, other researchers suggested the wasps might be telling their nestmates about useful sources of food. This “recruitment” behaviour is common in social animals, such as house sparrows and naked mole rats.
4-6-18 Waggle-dancing robot tells bees where to look for food
A robotic bee talks to bees in their own language, but not all of them seem to pay attention. Robots are talking with bees. A robotic bee can tell real bees the best places to forage, and at least some of the time they seem to get the message. Bees communicate using a sequence of movements known as the waggle dance, where the dancer wiggles their body whilst moving in a figure of eight. The orientation and the length of the movements tell other bees the direction and distance of a food source. A robot called RoboBee can mimic this dance. RoboBee doesn’t actually look much like a bee: it’s made of a cylindrical piece of sponge with plastic wings, and it’s attached to the end of a rod that controls its movements. But RoboBee’s looks aren’t that important, as inside a hive it’s so dark that bees don’t use sight to observe each other. Instead they smell and touch their nestmates with their antennae and detect air flow and vibrations through the honeycomb. The researchers filmed how bees responded to the RoboBee’s dance inside a hive. They hoped to see them follow the robot by staying close to it, touching it and tracking its movements as they do when other bees do the waggle dance. On some days, the robot worked beautifully and on others the bees ignored it, says Tim Landgraf, who developed RoboBee with colleagues at the Free University of Berlin in Germany. They don’t yet know why the robot works sometimes but not others, he says. When bees did follow the dance, they did so for longer than the average amount of time they follow natural dances. Landgraf estimates that the robot’s communication is 10 times less effective than that of real bees. This might be because it doesn’t have legs, so it doesn’t vibrate the honeycomb like a real bee. Chemical signals could be important too.
4-2-18 How honeybees’ royal jelly might be baby glue, too
A last-minute pH shift turns goo sticky and keeps queen larvae from falling out of their cells. Honeybee royal jelly is food meant to be eaten on the ceiling. And it might also be glue that keeps a royal baby in an upside-down cradle. These bees raise their queens in cells that can stay open at the bottom for days. A big blob of royal jelly, abundantly resupplied by worker bees, surrounds the larva at the ceiling. Before the food is deposited in the cell, it receives a last-minute jolt of acidity that triggers its proteins to thicken into goo, says Anja Buttstedt, a protein biochemist at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Basic larva-gripping tests suggest the jelly’s protein chemistry helps keep future queens from dropping out of their cells, Buttstedt and colleagues propose March 15 in Current Biology. Suspecting the stickiness of royal jelly might serve some function, researchers tweaked its acidity. They then filled small cups with royal jelly with different pH levels and gently turned the cups upside down. At a natural royal jelly acidity of about pH 4.0, all 10 larvae dangled from their gooey blobs upside down overnight. But in jelly boosted to pH 4.8 (and thinned in the process), four of the 10 larvae dropped from the cups. At pH 5.9, all of them dropped.
3-22-18 How bees defend against some controversial insecticides
Researchers have discovered enzymes that can help resist some neonicotinoids. Honeybees and bumblebees have a way to resist toxic compounds in some widely used insecticides. These bees make enzymes that help the insects break down a type of neonicotinoid called thiacloprid, scientists report March 22 in Current Biology. Neonicotinoids have been linked to negative effects on bee health, such as difficulty reproducing in honeybees (SN: 7/26/16, p 16). But bees respond to different types of the insecticides in various ways. This finding could help scientists design versions of neonicotinoids that are less harmful to bees, the researchers say. Such work could have broad ramifications, says study coauthor Chris Bass, an applied entomologist at the University of Exeter in England. “Bees are hugely important to the pollination of crops and wild flowers and biodiversity in general.” Neonicotinoids are typically coated on seeds such as corn and sometimes sprayed on crops to protect the plants from insect pests. The chemicals are effective, but their use has been suspected to be involved in worrisome declines in numbers of wild pollinators (SN Online: 4/5/12).
1-18-18 US police arrest two boys after vandalism killed 500k bees
Police have arrested two boys for allegedly vandalising a honey business in the US state of Iowa that killed half a million bees in late December. The damage to 50 beehives at Wild Hill Honey farm in Sioux City resulted in the honey bees freezing to death. The boys aged 12 and 13 are charged with three offences. Wild Hill Honey's owners said they had caused $60,000 (£43,400) of damage and called the crime "completely senseless." Co-owner Justin Engelhardt told the Sioux City Journal: "They knocked over every single hive, killing all the bees. They wiped us out completely." Mr Engelhardt and his wife discovered the destruction on their property on 28 December when they went to dust off snow from their hives. "They broke into our shed, they took all our equipment out and threw it out in the snow, smashed what they could. Doesn't look like anything was stolen, everything was just vandalised or destroyed," said Mr Engelhardt last month. The losses faced by Mr Engelhardt and his wife drew national and international attention and police were able to track down the suspects with the help of tip-offs from the public.
1-10-18 Smell of death tells undertaker bees it’s time to remove corpses
Undertaker honeybees get rid of the bodies of dead nestmates, but only those with a good sense of smell are able to do it. BRING out your dead! Honeybees pick up dead or diseased nestmates and drag them out of the hive. Removing corpses protects against infection, which can spread like wildfire in densely packed hives. “The honeybees work together to fight off disease,” says Alison McAfee at the University of British Columbia, Canada. But not all hives remove their corpses. McAfee and her colleagues have been figuring out why this is. In a 2017 study, they discovered two pheromones, called oleic acid and beta-ocimene, which are only released by dead bee larvae. When they wafted these “death pheromones” over honeybees, nerve cells in the antennae of corpse-removing bees were more active than those of other bees. This suggested that corpse-removing bees were better able to smell the pheromones. Now the team has added the pheromones to healthy larvae. As expected, worker bees removed dosed individuals from the nest, and bees from corpse-removing colonies removed more larvae than those from other nests (bioRxiv, doi.org/ch36). The corpse-removing bees’ ability to smell death could be down to two proteins on their antennae, OBP16 and OBP18. These are largely absent from bees that don’t remove corpses. “These proteins grab onto the odour molecules, transport them to the neurons and stimulate them, leading to a sense of smell,” says McAfee.
12-11-17 Bumblebees solve the travelling salesman problem on the fly
While buzzing between flowers, bees can solve the maths dilemma called the travelling salesman problem by finding the shortest route that visits every blossom. Bumblebees aren’t just hard workers, they’re efficient, too. These insects have a grasp of maths that enables them to crack the classic travelling salesman problem as they forage for pollen and nectar. The problem, a benchmark of computer science, poses the question, “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city and returns to the origin city?” This was the conundrum facing bumblebees let loose on an array of artificial flower feeding stations at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. “We tempted the bees with shortcuts between feeding stations that increased the total distance they travelled to visit all the feeders,” said Joe Woodgate at Queen Mary University of London, who led the research. Initially, the bees fell into the trap, opting for short-term gain but ending up with a longer, more exhausting journey as they visited every flower in turn. Gradually, the insects refined their flight paths and found the most effective “travelling salesman” solution. Instead of taking the obvious short cuts, they altered the order of their flower visits to reduce the overall travel distance. The team studied six bumblebees making 201 flights using a special type of radar capable of identifying signature reflections from tiny transponders attached to the insects.
11-9-17 Honeybees fumble their way to blueberry pollination
But the berry pollen doesn’t end up in the insects’ hives. Honeybees may be the world’s most famous pollinator, but a new study shows that blueberry blooms reduce the insects to improvisational klutzes. Not useless ones though. Pollination specialists have realized that the pollen haul found in hives of Apis mellifera honeybees has little, if any, from blueberry flowers, ecologist George Hoffman said November 5 at the Entomology 2017 meeting. Yet big commercial blueberry growers bring in hives of honeybees in the belief that the insects will help wild pollinators and boost the berry harvest. It isn’t easy for honeybees to stick their heads into jar-shaped blueberry flowers, which narrow at the top, to get at the nectar. Nor do honeybees do the buzz-in-place move that some other bees use to shake pollen out of the pores on the blueberry flower anthers. Still, fumbling honeybees often get blueberry pollen on their bodies as they grab and stretch, sometimes even poking a leg down into a bloom. In more than 60 percent of bee visits analyzed, a leg brushed against the receptive female part of the flower, Hoffman, of Oregon State University in Corvallis, found. And more of the pollen sticks to their legs than to the more usual pollination pickup spots around the bees’ heads, he observed (SN: 9/30/17, p. 32).
11-4-17 This robot was inspired by bees. And it can swim.
"What's better than a robot inspired by bees? A robot inspired by bees that can swim." "What's better than a robot inspired by bees? A robot inspired by bees that can swim," said Katherine Ellen Foley at Quartz. Researchers guided by a team of scientists from Harvard University have developed a tiny, bee-size bot, weighing the same as "about two feathers," to study the ocean. The robot has "insect-inspired wings that can both flap and rotate," allowing it to dive into water, swim, take off again, and land safely. It also comes equipped with its own "little chemical lab" to help it break the water's surface tension after it has taken a plunge. The bot converts water into oxygen and hydrogen, and once enough gas is generated, "a lighter sets it on fire, the force of which shoots the robot about 12 inches into the air." Scientists hope the robots will be able to "keep tabs on fish and algae populations," monitor water pollution, and even participate in search-and-rescue missions at sea.
10-5-17 Neonicotinoid pesticides found in honey from every continent
Neonicotinoid pesticides found in honey from every continent
The discovery of neonicotinoid pesticides in honey means pollinating insects like bees regularly eat dangerous amounts of the pesticides. The evidence has been mounting for years that the world’s most widely used pesticides, neonicotinoids, harm bees and other pollinating insects. Now it seems the problem isn’t limited to Europe and North America, where the alarm was first sounded. It’s everywhere. In 2013 the EU temporarily banned neonicotinoids on crops that attract bees, such as oilseed rape. In November, the European Food Safety Authority will decide if the evidence warrants a total ban. France has already announced one. Starting in 2012, a team led by Alex Aebi of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, asked travelling colleagues, friends and relatives to bring back honey when they went abroad. In three years they amassed 198 samples from every continent except Antarctica, and tested them for neonicotinoids. They found that three-quarters of the samples contained at least one of the five neonicotinoid pesticides. Of those, nearly half contained between two and five different neonicotinoids. Most worryingly, in 48 per cent of the contaminated samples, the neonicotinoids were at levels that exceeded the minimum dose known to cause “marked detrimental effects” in pollinators. “The situation is indeed bad for pollinators,” says Aebi.
10-5-17 Much of the world’s honey now contains bee-harming pesticides
Much of the world’s honey now contains bee-harming pesticides
Global survey finds neonicotinoids in three-fourths of samples. Neonicotinoid pesticides are turning up in honey on every continent with honeybees. The first global honey survey testing for these controversial nicotine-derived pesticides shows just how widely honeybees are exposed to the chemicals, which have been shown to affect the health of bees and other insects. Three out of four honey samples tested contained measurable levels of at least one of five common neonicotinoids, researchers report in the Oct. 6 Science. “On the global scale, the contamination is really striking,” says study coauthor Edward Mitchell, a soil biologist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The pesticides are used on many kinds of crops grown in different climates, but traces of the chemicals showed up even in honey from remote islands with very little agriculture. “I used to think of neonicotinoids as being a [localized] problem next to a small set of crops,” says Amro Zayed, who studies bees at York University in Toronto and wasn’t involved in the research. These pesticides “are much more prevalent than I previously thought.”
10-5-17 Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples
Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples
A new study has found traces of neonicotinoid chemicals in 75% of honey samples from across the world. The scientists say that the levels of the widely used pesticide are far below the maximum permitted levels in food for humans. In one-third of the honey, the amount of the chemical found was enough to be detrimental to bees. Industry sources, though, dismissed the research, saying the study was too small to draw concrete conclusions. Neonicotinoids are considered to be the world's most widely used class of insecticides. These systemic chemicals can be added as a seed coating to many crops, reducing the need for spraying. They have generally been seen as being more beneficial for the environment than the older products that they have replaced. However, the impact of neonics on pollinators such as bees has long been a troubling subject for scientists around the world. Successive studies have shown a connection between the use of the products and a decline in both the numbers and health of bees. Earlier this year, the most comprehensive field study to date concluded that the pesticides harm honey bees and wild bees. This new study looks at the prevalence of neonicotinoids in 198 honey samples gathered on every continent (except Antarctica). The survey found at least one example of these chemicals in 75% of the honey, from all parts of the globe. Concentrations were highest in North America, Asia and Europe.
9-6-17 Pollen hitches a ride on bees in all the right spots
Pollen hitches a ride on bees in all the right spots
Hard-to-groom zones line up with where flower reproductive parts touch the insects. After bees groom pollen off their bodies, there’s still some left over. These overlooked areas correspond to places where flowers’ reproductive parts come in contact with the bees, a new study shows. Bee bodies may be built just right to help pollen hitch a ride between flowers. For the first time, scientists have identified where and how much pollen is left behind on bees’ bodies after the insects groom themselves. These residual patches of pollen align with spots on bees’ bodies that touch flowers’ pollen-collecting reproductive parts, researchers report online September 6 in PLOS ONE. Typically, when honeybees and bumblebees visit flowers for nectar, they brush much of the pollen that powders their bodies into pocketlike structures on their legs to carry home for bee larvae to eat. In fact, bees are so good at stashing pollen that less than 4 percent of a flower’s pollen grains may reach the pollen-receiving parts of a second flower of the same species. Given bees’ pollen-hoarding prowess, researchers wondered how they came to play such a significant role in plant reproduction. So biologist Petra Wester and colleagues put buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and European honeybees (Apis mellifera) into jars containing pollen grains. As the bees whizzed around, they stirred up the pollen, evenly coating themselves in just a few minutes. When placed in clean jars, the insects groomed themselves. Even after a half hour of grooming, the insects still had pollen caked on some areas of their bodies, including the tops of their heads, thoraxes and abdomens.
9-1-17 Bee larvae fed beebread have no chance of becoming queen
Bee larvae fed beebread have no chance of becoming queen
Whether a honeybee larva becomes a queen or a worker is down to the food it is given – and the amount of plant RNA in it. A simple meal is all that’s needed to determine the fate of a honeybee larva. It turns out that fragments of genetic material from flowers in their food control the bees’ destinies. When female larvae are fed royal jelly, which is secreted by other bees, they develop into large-bodied, fertile queens. But most larvae eat beebread, a mixture of pollen and nectar. These larvae develop into smaller, sterile worker bees. Xi Chen at Nanjing University in China and colleagues have now found that beebread contains lots of small RNA molecules called microRNAs. These regulate the expression of genes, and in plants they help regulate essential processes like making leaves and flowers. “Plants utilise certain miRNAs to influence the size, morphology, colour and development of flowers,” says Chen. “Such characteristics of flowers guide [honeybees] in pollen collection.” As a result, a lot of these miRNAs end up in beebread, where larvae eat them. The researchers collected pollen, honey, royal jelly and beebread from hives and measured their miRNA levels. They found that beebread and pollen had much higher concentrations of plant miRNAs than royal jelly. The team then reared bee larvae in the laboratory, feeding them a beebread mimic — a lab diet enriched with the same miRNAs as in pollen, at the same amounts. Larvae grown with miRNAs ended up as worker bees, with reduced weight and size, and smaller ovaries.
8-4-17 Bees are first insects shown to understand the concept of zero
Bees are first insects shown to understand the concept of zero
Zero is not an easy idea to grasp, even for young humans – but experiments suggest bees might be up to the challenge. Bees seem to understand the idea of zero – the first invertebrate shown to do so. When the insects were encouraged to fly towards a platform carrying fewer shapes than another one, they apparently recognised “no shapes” as a smaller value than “some shapes”. Zero is not an easy concept to comprehend, even for us. Young children learn the number zero later than other numbers, and often have trouble identifying whether it is less than or more than 1. Apart from ourselves, some other animals grasp the concept of zero, though. Chimpanzees and monkeys, for instance, have been able to consider zero as a quantity when taught. With their tiny brains, bees may seem an unlikely candidate to join the zero club. But they have surprisingly well-developed number skills: a previous study found that they can count to 4. To see whether honeybees are able to understand zero, Scarlett Howard at RMIT University in Melbourne and her colleagues first trained bees to differentiate between two numbers. They set up two platforms, each with between one and four shapes on it.
11-3-16 Bees collect honeydew from bugs before spring blossoms arrive
Bees collect honeydew from bugs before spring blossoms arrive
In the absence of nectar, bees get by on the sweet secretions of other insects — but they still need flowers for their protein-laden pollen. When nectar is scarce, bees can tap into another source of sweet stuff: the droppings left behind by other insects. This honeydew, a sugar-rich substance secreted by sap-sucking scale insects, may tide hungry bees over until spring flowers bloom. Although we tend to think of bees as hive-living socialites, most bee species are solitary, with each female building a nest to protect her developing offspring. Adults emerge in the spring and live for just a few weeks, when they mate and gather pollen and nectar. Fragrant, colourful flowers are like neon arrows pointing to those resources. But how wild bees survive if they mature before the blooms do was still largely a mystery, says Joan Meiners at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Unlike colony-building honeybees, solitary bees don’t stockpile honey for times when blossoms are scarce. “There’s really not much that’s known about what bees do when there aren’t flowers,” Meiners says.
Tales from the Hive
Sioux Falls Zoologists endorse Bees: Tales from the Hive for showing
us the complex lives of these amazing little creatures.
How the bee colony works and bees work together.