Tag Archives: bee

Feisty bees make more potent venom, which makes for better medicine

Not all bee venom is made equal, a new study explains. According to the findings, ‘angry’ bees produce a more potent mixture. Bee venom is known for its benefits against degenerative and infectious diseases such as Parkinson’s and osteoarthritis.

Image credits David Hablützel.

This study is the first to analyze the protein diversity in samples of venom retrieved from western honeybees (Apis mellifera ligustica) in southern-western Australia. Surprisingly, they explain, bees that react with more intensity to stimuli from the researchers — in essence, more aggressive bees — produced a more protein-diverse venom.

Sting like a bee

“We found there are 99 bee venom proteins of which about one third had been formerly identified. The more proteins found in the venom, the higher the potential quality and effect,” said lead researcher Dr. Daniela Scaccabarozzi from the Curtin University School of Molecular and Life Sciences. “To understand the protein diversity of bee venom and find out what drivers impacted this, the multidisciplinary research team looked at a range of factors including the behavioral patterns of the bees.

The team worked with samples from 25 hives spread across a 200 km-latitudinal range in Southwestern Australia. The venom was analyzed using a mass spectrometer, which allowed the researchers to accurately measure levels of individual proteins. They then looked at how levels of these proteins varied with environmental and behavioral factors.

As far as behavioral factors are concerned, protein diversity levels seen in venom was associated with how active or docile individual bees were, the team reports. Bees that reacted more intensely to stimuli during the trials secreted “a richer, more protein-dense bee venom”, they add.

“The overall quantity of venom released by bees relies on the alarm pheromone secretion that induces other bees to aggressively react by stinging. This may be a result of changes in genetics that can provoke aggression in bees,” Dr. Scaccabarozzi explains.

Beyond genetic factors, temperature also seems to have an effect on the protein makeup of bee venom. High temperatures are especially detrimental to bee activity both inside and outside of the hive, according to the authors. Out of the 25 hives that they tested, the team found that those at sites with higher overall temperatures showed the lowest amounts of venom production.

“This met our expectation that seasonal factors do cause a change in the protein profile of bee venom. The optimal range for high protein diversity varies from 33 to 36 degrees Celsius,” Dr. Scaccabarozzi said.

Geographical location and the flowering stage of local flowers when harvested by the bees further impacted the composition of venom in each hive.

While research like this might seem inconsequential to most of us, it does actually have practical applications. Beekeeping is big business, and bee venom is quite the hot commodity — one gram of it can command up to US$300. Furthermore, the medicinal applications of bee venom are dependent on its quality. Knowing what factors influence this will allow us better quality and more reliable use of venom.

That being said, Dr. Scaccabarozzi says we need more research to help beekeepers ensure a constant quality of venom from their hives. This is especially important for clinical and therapeutic uses. Designing cost-effective harvesting strategies that maintain the quality of the venom would also go a long way towards establishing it for medical uses, the team adds.

The paper “Factors driving the compositional diversity of Apis mellifera bee venom from a Corymbia calophylla (marri) ecosystem, Southwestern Australia” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Sure, this pandemic sucks, but at least a bee didn’t sting you in the eye

Credit: Pxhere.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it can. On top of 2020, a 22-year-old male got stung by a bee in the eyeball. This rare case was recently described in the New England Journal of Medicine, detailing his unfortunate condition and recovery.

When the young man showed up at the emergency department, the bee’s stinger was jutting out of his left eye’s cornea — the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil, which helps the eye focus light. Due to the bee venom and tissue trauma, the eye swelled. As a result, the man was in pain and had poor vision in the affected eye.

“Ocular examination of the left eye showed diffuse corneal haziness caused by corneal edema; a retained stinger that was surrounded by infiltrates was visible (arrow in image),” Chana Sacks of the Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in the study.

Credit: New England Journal of Medicine.

According to the researchers, corneal bee stings are extremely rare and their manifestations range from mild irritations to vision loss. “Possible complications include corneal decompensation and secondary glaucoma,” doctors said.

In this case, the young man’s condition was very serious, but luckily, he was able to retain vision in the affected eye. After the patient was treated with an antibiotic solution, the stinger was removed under local anesthesia. Doctors then sutured the corneal wound and gave the patient two weeks’ worth of glucocorticoids, antibiotics, as well as anti-inflammatories and pain killers.

Three months later, the patient’s left eye largely recovered, Ars Technica reported. His visual acuity was 20/40 in the affected eye, and may improve in time to 20/20, as it was before the incident.

Researchers publish the ultimate map of bee diversity, but there’s still much we don’t know

The biodiversity of bees usually flies under the radar. There are 20,000 species of bees out there, spread across a wide range of habitats and climates. Researchers have now compiled the most detailed global map of bees which may be valuable for conservation efforts.

Image credits: Boris Smokrovic.

Bees are in trouble. From the pesticides we use to the natural habitats we destroy, we’re driving change that is devastating to bees.

The decline does not have only one cause, but land-use changes for agriculture or urbanization is consistently linked with bee decline. Over winter alone, the US honeybee population declined by 40%, and figures from the developed world exhibit a similar trend.

Most studies focus on honeybees as they are the closest related to our economic activity. We use them not only for honey but also to pollinate key agricultural species. Pollinators (mostly bees) provide yearly services amounting to more than 24 billion dollars to the United States economy alone — but wild pollinators also provide valuable contributions. Even when it’s not agricultural plants or plants we see near our cities, bees play a key role in virtually every ecosystem they’re in. That’s why mapping them is so important.

“People think of bees as just honey bees, bumble bees, and maybe a few others, but there are more species of bees than of birds and mammals combined,” says senior author John Ascher, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore. “The United States has by far the most species of bees, but there are also vast areas of the African continent and the Middle East which have high levels of undiscovered diversity, more than in tropical areas.”

It’s the first time global bee species richness has been represented. Ascher and colleagues combed through a list of almost 6 million public records where individual bee species are mentioned in the world. The global analysis revealed hotspots of species richness, but the distribution wasn’t exactly what researchers expected.

Most species follow a latitude distribution in which diversity increases toward the tropics and decreases toward the poles. But bees follow a different distribution: more species are concentrated away from the poles and fewer near the equator, a pattern known as a bimodal latitudinal gradient. There also seem to be far fewer bee species in forests and jungles than in arid desert environments, as trees tend to provide fewer sources of food for bees than low-lying plants and flowers.

This map shows modeled relative species richness of bees around the world and depicts the bimodal latitudinal gradient. Darker areas have more species. Image credits: Orr et al./Current Biology.

The main goal of the map is to establish a baseline level of bee populations. We can’t really know when global populations decline if we don’t know how abundant they are in the first place, and mapping geographical trends may inform conservation policy. The data can also be combined with other information to reveal patterns of what bees like and what they don’t.

Although difficult, such complexities must be accounted for to understand and map the history of bee evolution.

“Understanding insect distribution is key to evolutionary studies of origin and diversification, as well as ecological or conservation-oriented studies of how specific groups will respond to threats such as climate change or other human-induced phenomena,” the researchers note in the study. “In light of this, building and sharing our knowledge of insect distribution is one of the greatest, most important challenges that biologists and conservationists face, but the challenges of studying insects mandate the study of representative areas or specific groups.”

But while this is the most comprehensive map of bee diversity ever put together, many questions still remain. Data is scarce in many locations, and more local information can greatly improve the resolution and depth of our knowledge, the researchers note in the study.

This is particularly concerning since, in many parts of the developing world, where data tends to be most scarce, local agriculture relies on native bee species — of which far less is known. So data is missing exactly where we’d need it the most.

“I was surprised how terrible most of the prior global data really was about bee diversity,” says Alice Hughes, an associate professor of conservation biology at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences and another author on the paper. “A lot of the data were just too patchy or too concentrated on a small number of countries that have prioritized data sharing to be able to use these resources for any large-scale analysis.”

The team views this research as a stepping stone towards a better understanding of global bee diversity,

The authors view this research as an important first step towards a more comprehensive understanding of global bee diversity and an important baseline for future, more detailed bee research.

The study has been published in Current Biology.

Honeybee brains could be a good model to study human brains on

New research from the University of Otago and the University of Heidelberg found that bee and human brains have some surprising similarities.

A bumblebee looking epic.
Image credits Harry Strauss.

Both human and honey bee brains generate alpha oscillations (the cyclic patterns of electrical activity neurons generate, also known as ‘waves’) with surprisingly similar properties, the study reports. The findings could help us better understand brain functions such as attention, memory, and consciousness, and point to a novel way of studying the human brain.


“Experiments on humans are expensive, logistically difficult, and time consuming. Moreover, recordings from individual identified neurons are not possible in human brains. By studying the brains of bees we can overcome these limitations and apply that knowledge to research, and eventually perhaps even to treatment, of human brains,” explains Paul Szyszka, Lecturer in the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology and the paper’s second author.

Szyszka collaborated with Dr. Tzvetan Popov of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, the study’s lead author, to study the brains of regular honey bees living in outdoor hives. The duo took bees into the lab, implanted microscopic electrodes into their brains to record patterns of neural activity, and then set about stimulating them with various odors. The team would also feed these bees a sucrose solution (i.e. sugar water) from a pipette while they were exposed to certain odors.

In the end, the duo found that bees can learn to associate odors with food in a similar way to humans and other primates. They further found that the process elicited similar changes in alpha waves in the bees’ brains as have been observed under similar conditions in humans and other primates. As such, they say the findings “suggest a common role of alpha oscillations across phyla and provide an unprecedented new venue for causal studies on the relationship between neuronal spikes, brain oscillations, and cognition.”

“What we want to do now is examine how these alpha oscillations change in different situations. As a neuroethologist, I’m interested in how bees’ alpha oscillations change during natural behaviors, for example when a bee forages or sleeps,” Szyszka says.

Szyszka is now looking for Zoology or Neuroscience master students to collaborate with on continuing this research. He is particularly interested in studying the relationship between brain waves, learning, and memory.

The paper “Alpha oscillations govern interhemispheric spike timing coordination in the honey bee brain” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Bumblebees carry heavy loads in ‘economy’ flight mode

Bumblebees can carry surprisingly heavy loads of nectar, a new paper explains, potentially bearing up to their own body weight in the sweet liquid. Furthermore, the insects use a more energy-efficient flight pattern when heavily encumbered.

Image credits Suzanne Williams.

The humble bumblebees definitely lift, the authors report. In fact, they may be the ‘big lifters’ of the insect world. The team set out to understand how the bumblebees manage to fly with such impressive loads, and uncovered the surprising flexibility and adaptability of their flight mechanics.

The burdens we bear

“[Bumblebees] can carry 60, 70, or 80 percent of their body weight flying, which would be a huge load for us just walking around,” said Susan Gagliardi, a research associate in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California (UoC) Davis and co-author of the paper.

“We were curious to see how they do it and how much it costs them to carry food and supplies back to the hive.”

For the study, the team emptied a snowglobe (to be used as an experimental chamber) and released bumblebees inside it. Each insect had various lengths of solder wide attached to it in an effort to adjust its weight. High-speed video cameras were used to record their wing beats and movements, while the team charted how much energy each bee needed to expend.

“We have the bees in a little chamber and we measure the carbon dioxide they produce. They are mostly burning sugar so you can tell directly how much sugar they are using as they are flying,” Gagliardi said.

Unlike our aircraft, which generate lift from the smooth flow of air over their fixed, horizontal wings, bees move their wings at a high angle to generate tiny wind vortices. These churning bodies of air curl around the insect’s wings and lift them up. The team explains that while the bee’s approach does generate more lift than the smooth-airflow approach out planes rely on, it’s also more unstable mechanically — the vortices are chaotic and they break down very quickly. Bees are only able to fly because they move their wings rapidly to re-generate the vortices.

We didn’t know, however, the energy-efficiency of this mode of flight. It seems reasonable to assume that the bees would use less energy the lighter their load is, but the team was surprised to find out this isn’t the case: bumblebees are actually more efficient per unit of weight when they’re heavily laden. In other words, they’re more “economical in flying” when they’re heavily loaded — “which doesn’t make any sense in terms of energetics,” says Stacey Combes. Combes is an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior at the UoC and the paper’s lead author.

The team explains that bumblebees have two ways to deal with heavy loads. They can either increase the amplitude of their strokes (i.e. how far the wings flap), which helps but isn’t enough on its own for the heaviest of loads, or increase the frequency of their wingbeats, which helps them stay aloft but costs more energy. However, they also observed an alternative flying mode being used — one the team calls their “economy mode” — in which the bees can carry lots of nectar while using less energy than faster flapping requires.

Exactly how they do this is still unclear, Combes said, although the team believes it may involve the wings rotating when reversing direction between strokes. However, it seems to be something that the bees themselves can choose to do, or not. The team explains that overall, when lightly-loaded or rested, the bumblebees were more likely to increase the frequency of their wingbeats. However, they switch to the ‘economy mode’ only when heavily loaded, which produces more lift without an increase in flapping frequency.

“It turns out to be a behavioral choice they are making in terms of how they support the load,” Combes said.

But why don’t they always fly in this mode? The team is still unsure, but it may be that high wingbeat frequency brings other advantages to the table that are more attractive to the bees in a lighter-load scenario.

“When I started in this field there was a tendency to see them as little machines, we thought they’ll flap their wings one way when carrying zero load, another way when they’re carrying 50 percent load and every bee will do it the same way every time,” Combes adds.

“This has given us an appreciation that it’s a behavior, they choose what to do. Even the same bee on a different day will pick a new way to flap its wings.”

The paper “Kinematic flexibility allows bumblebees to increase energetic efficiency when carrying heavy loads” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Saving the bees: Small prairies around agricultural fields can help bees get through the winter

Honey bee pollinating clover. Image credits: Amy Toth

When scientists placed honey bee hives next to soybean fields in Iowa, they were prepared to track how the bees would fare over the season. Surprisingly, the bees seemed to do really well at first. They gained weight, built up honey stores, and thrived. But things quickly turned south in August. By October, the bees had consumed almost their entire stock, and were malnourished.

The reason was simple: they were out of food sources.

“We saw a feast-or-famine kind of dynamic happening, where in the middle of the summer they were doing great. In fact, the hives in highly agricultural areas outcompeted hives in areas with less soybean production,” said Amy Toth, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State University who led the research with ISU entomology professor Matthew O’Neal and University of Illinois entomology professor Adam Dolezal.

“But then they all just crashed and burned at the end of the year,” Toth said.

The researchers tried different approaches to see if they could save the bees. They were somewhat successful when they moved the bee colony to a reconstructed prairie site with many late-flowering plants. This helped the hives rebound and make sufficient stocks for the winter.

This study is particularly important as it offers a nuanced view of how bees tend to do around agricultural areas. Some previous studies have found that honeybees do better in agricultural areas than in other landscapes, but this is still far from settled. What Toth and colleagues show is that bee evolution is not linear — even if they thrive in the summer, yearly can still be devastating.

“There’s been a lot of interest in how bees respond to agriculture,” said co-author Adam Dolezal. “There’s been work on pesticides and predictions that the highly monocultured agricultural landscapes have lost a lot of floral resources.”

“One hypothesis about that is that bees near agricultural zones have more access to flowering crops and weeds like clover than those near forests, which can have fewer floral resources,” he said.

Prairie planting on former agricultural field. Image credits: Cassi Saari.

The new research seems to support this idea — but yet again, things aren’t clear. The researchers tracked to see which plants the bees rely on, so they took samples of pollen spilled by foraging bees. Surprisingly, over 60% of the pollen came from clover — not the agricultural soy plants. Field edges are often mowed and contain clover, which seems to be very important for the bees — but is often neglected by the farmers.

But here’s the thing) clover (as soybean, and many other agricultural plants) tend to bloom in late July or early August. This means that in late August, the bees’ food supply starts dwindling. If we want to help bees make it past the hump, providing them access to a small prairie (particularly consisting of late-blooming flowers) can make a huge difference. However, researchers don’t recommend that beekeepers move their hives around.

That’s difficult, time-consuming, and in many environments, there are few prairies which can support the bees. Instead, the team recommends adding small patches of around 5-8 acres (2-3 hectares) around large agricultural fields.

These strips will not only help the bees, but they would also reduce soil erosion and prevent unwanted nutrient run-off from farm fields into waterways. They would also help other insects and critters, helping to mitigate some of the invariable ecosystem damage brought by agriculture. These prairies would essentially serve as an oasis for life in what is often an agricultural desert.

The study “Native habitat mitigates feast/famine conditions faced by honey bees in an agricultural landscape” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Newly-discovered bee species in Fiji are already thretened

Newly-discovered bee species in Fiji are already showing signs of exposure to environmental changes.

Homalictus terminalis.
Image credits James Dorey / Flinders University.

As researchers at the Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia are discovering new bee species endemic to the Fiji archipelago, they’re already reporting signs of climate- and environment-related stress. Some of the main threats for these species are climate change, noxious plants, and multiple human activities that are impacting their habitat.

Beeing under pressure

“A likely driver of this possible extinction is changing climates,” says Flinders University Associate Professor Mike Schwarz, a co-author on the paper.

University students from South Australia have been working in Fiji for several years now as part of the Australian Government’s New Colombo overseas study program. The field trips taken as part of the program are definitely worthwhile. Students were able to redescribe four known bee species and describe nine new ones according to Dr. Mark Stevens, South Australia Museum senior researcher on terrestrial invertebrates.

The species are part of the Homalictus subgenus of bees, a group whose range includes Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and extends east across the Pacific to Australia, Samoa, and the Mariana Islands. Some of these animals, such as the bee Homalictus cockerell have not been taxonomically reviewed in the Fijian archipelago for 40 years. But, some of these species are already showing signs of exposure to environmental change.

The field trips taken as part of the program are definitely worthwhile. Students were able to redescribe four known species of bees and describe nine new ones according to Dr. Mark Stevens, South Australia Museum senior researcher on terrestrial invertebrates. Some of these animals, such as the bee Homalictus Cockerell has not been taxonomically reviewed in the Fijian archipelago for 40 years.

Homalictus groomi.
Image credits James Dorey / Flinders University.

Fiji’s bees rely on unique habitats created by the mountains in the area. “Most of the species diversity (11 species) live 800 meters or more above sea level, which highlights the vulnerability of highland-restricted species to a warming climate,” explains Dr. Stevens.

Homalictus achrostus, featuring unusual large mandibles, is one of the most interesting bee species endemic to Fiji. Like many Fijian bee species, H. achrostus has only ever found on a single mountain top. The team christened of its relatives Homalictus terminalis in an effort to raise awareness of how close to extinction it is hovering currently, and of how dire the situation is for the subgenus.

“Homalictus terminalis is named so to indicate that, like many Fijian bees, it is nearing its limit and is at risk of climate-related extinction,” says lead author James Dorey, a Ph.D. candidate at the Flinders University. “Found only on Mount Batilamu near the city of Nadi, where many tourists launch their holidays, H. terminalis has only been found within 95 metres of the mountain peak.”

“Six individuals were collected on Mount Nadarivatu in the 1970s and two in 2010, but despite frequent searching almost every year since no more have been found,” says Associate Professor Schwarz.

The mountains that dot Fiji create highland ecosystems that are unique in the area. These colder ecosystems, however, could be slowly pushed upwards and off the top of the mountains, which would spell disaster for the species adapted to living in the particular microclimates of today.

The findings, the team explains, raise “real concerns about the extinction of many highland species in Fiji and across all of the tropics,” and showcase yet again the strain our emissions are putting on biodiversity, ecosystems, and the health of the planet at large.

The paper “Review of the bee genus Homalictus Cockerell (Hymenoptera: Halictidae) from Fiji with description of nine new species” has been published in the journal Zootaxa.

Leafcutter bee.

Bee sting vaccine successfully passes human trials in Australia

Australian researchers at Flinders University and the Royal Adelaide Hospital have successfully tested an antiallergic bee-sting vaccine — and it worked buzzingly.

Leafcutter bee.

Image via Pixabay.

For most of us, bee stings are definitely unpleasant and painful; for a ‘lucky’ few, however, they’re potentially deadly. Bee-sting-induced allergic reactions can be severe enough to cause death. Bee stings remain the single “most lethal venomous animal encounter” in the US through the allergic (anaphylactic) shock they can cause, previous research has reported.

The team plans to make it easier than ever to prevent those deaths. They have successfully completed a human trial of a vaccine designed to eliminate the risk of severe allergic reactions to European honeybee stings.

Allergies bee gone!

“Our technology is like adding a turbocharger to a car and in this case makes the bee allergy vaccine much more powerful, allowing the immune system to better neutralise the bee venom and prevent allergic symptoms,” says Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, the study’s corresponding author.

The thing that sets the team’s approach apart from other similar vaccines is a unique, sugar-based ingredient called an adjuvant. This compound was designed to help the patients’ organisms in neutralizing bee venom (the substance that causes allergic shock) more rapidly. The adjuvant itself has so far proven to be safe; Professor Petrovsky says it has been successfully given to over a thousand individuals across a range of different vaccines including in the current bee sting allergy trial with no ill effects.

Associate Professor Robert Heddle, lead investigator in the trial, says that this adjuvant (called Advax) was the actual subject of the study — the team wanted to see if it would safely help improve the speed and efficiency of the bee sting vaccine. Advax was developed in Adelaide by Vaxine Pty Ltd and has also been used to develop vaccines for seasonal and pandemic influenza, hepatitis, malaria, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, among other diseases. The trial included 27 adults with a history of allergic reactions to bee stings.

“The results of the study were very promising and confirmed the safety of this approach to improving bee sting immunotherapy.”

There already is a commercially-available bee venom therapy on the market today, explains study co-author Dr Anthony Smith, but it requires patients to take around 50 injections over a 3-year period to slowly build immunity. It’s useful, but it can’t help somebody who’s experiencing an acute allergic response.

It “is lengthy and cumbersome, so I hope this enhanced bee venom therapy brings about faster, but longer lasting protection to bee stings for allergic individuals,” Smith adds.

The paper “Randomized controlled trial demonstrating the benefits of delta inulin adjuvanted immunotherapy in patients with bee venom allergy” has been published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Honey bee.

Honey bee colonies dropped by 16% worldwide in the winter of 2017-18

There are now 16% fewer honey bee colonies than in the winter of 2017-18, reports an international team of researchers led by the University of Strathclyde.

Honey bee.

Image credits Martin Tajmr.

The study was based on voluntarily submitted information from 25,363 beekeepers from 33 countries in Europe — including the four nations of the UK — along with Algeria, Israel, and Mexico. Out of the 544,879 colonies these beekeepers managed, 89,124 were lost over the winter of 2017-18. The main causes of colony loss were weather, queen-related issues, and natural disasters.

Losses weren’t equally-distributed across the globe. Portugal, Northern Ireland, Italy, and England experienced losses above 25%, while Belarus, Israel, and Serbia saw loss rates under 10%. Countries including Germany, Sweden, and Greece experienced significant variations in the local rates of bee colony loss, the team explains.

Losing bees

“Loss of honey bee colonies is a highly complex issue. It tends to be influenced less by overall climate than by specific weather patterns or a natural disaster affecting the colony,” says Dr Alison Gray, a Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics, and lead author of the study.
“We observe colonies in winter but what happens to the bees then can be partly determined by the conditions of the previous summer.”

Bee colonies declined in number by 16.4% across the studied area, the team reports. While this is lower than the loss rate of 2016-17 (20.9%), it was significantly higher than the 2015-16 loss rate of 12%. The study is the work of researchers in the colony loss monitoring group of the international honey bee research association COLOSS, based at the Institute of Bee Health at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

One finding that stands out from similar studies of previous years is that beekeepers who moved their colonies during the foraging season — giving their bees access to new sources of pollen — reported fewer losses than those who didn’t move around. This finding goes against the grain of previous research. Overall, the team adds, smaller-scale beekeeping operations saw more losses than large-scale ones.

“The impact of beekeepers migrating their colonies would be expected to be partly dependent on the distance traveled and the reasons for migration; this would be worth further investigation,” Dr Gray explains.

“Many are also lost when there are problems with a colony’s queen — for example, if she goes missing or is not laying the fertilised eggs which go on to become worker bees. Most colonies are also under attack from varroa mites, a parasitic mite.”

The study focused on six sources of forage (the plants bees visit to collect nectar and pollen) in six categories: orchards; rapeseed; maize; sunflower; heather, and autumn forage crops. These were potentially useful food sources for bees, the team explains, and they could definitely help a colony out. However, they add that by extending the active and brood-rearing season of the bees, forage which was available late in the season could also extend the reproductive cycle for varroa mites, weakening the bee colonies and making winter losses more likely.

The paper “Loss rates of honey bee colonies during winter 2017/18 in 36 countries participating in the COLOSS survey, including effects of forage sources” has been published in the journal Journal of Apicultural Research.

Saving the Honey Bee: Can New Genomic Clues Help Solve the Colony Collapse Mystery?

Image credits:
Daniel Olaleye.

Colony collapse disorder has been the scourge of U.S. beekeepers for more than a decade, contributing to a 30-40 percent plunge in commercial honey bee colonies since 2006. A threat to bees is a threat to people: bees help pollinate more than one-third of our crops, including almonds, apples, cucumbers, melons and squash. Their labors as pollinators produced $15 billion worth of crops in the United States in 2016 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientists initially struggled to explain colony collapse disorder. But through careful detective work, they have identified a parade of horribles that may trigger the fatal syndrome, including climate change, pesticides and bee parasites – yet in order to save the bees, scientists need more than just identify the culprits. They need detailed genomic, cellular and physiological data on how these factors imperil bee health, and how the damage can be stopped.

One parasite to rule them all

For the western honey bee, no parasite is more destructive than the Varroa mites — Varroa destructor and Varroa jacobsoni. These tiny ectoparasites bite both free-flying worker bees and larvae in the hive. Scientists originally believed that Varroa mites feed on hemolymph, the bee equivalent of blood. However, newer research indicates that they may instead prefer a liver-like organ in bees known as the fat body. But their appetite explains only part of the havoc that these mites wreak: Varroa bites also deliver a horde of debilitating and fatal viral pathogens that can ultimately doom a bee colony to extinction.


Proximo Hi-C on the case

An international team of scientists led by Dr. Maéva Techer and Dr. Alexander Mikheyev at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology employed Proximo Hi-C to obtain complete genomes for V. destructor and V. jacobsoni — picking up genomic regions missed in previous versions of the V. destructor genome and assembling the first-ever complete genome for V. jacobsoni.

“Understanding the mechanisms of parasitism requires detailed information about the organization of the genome,” said Dr. Mikheyev.

Already, they have identified regions of both genomes that proved essential for Varroa mites to parasitize honey bees. The team hopes that these new and improved genomic tools will ultimately reveal cellular or physiological traits in Varroa that scientists could exploit at the molecular level to save honey bee colonies from infection and destruction.

“Our company’s mission is to empower genomic researchers to make breakthrough discoveries,” said Dr. Ivan Liachko, founder and CEO of Phase Genomics, which performed the analysis. “Our technology brings unique benefits to the field of genome assembly and we are very proud to be a part of a project of such global importance as this endeavor to help honey bees.”

The case of the blighted western honey bee

Fighting Varroa is a particularly crucial issue for the western honey bee, Apis mellifera, a relatively new host for Varroa mites. Varroa mites and their original hosts — the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana — are native to Asia, while the western honey bee hails from Varroa-free Europe. But when beekeeping practices brought eastern and western honey bees together in the 19th and 20th centuries, V. destructor jumped from eastern honey bees to their western counterparts and eventually spread globally. Over the past 20 years, V. jacobsoni has also started to infest western honey bee hives in Asia.

Western honey bees are particularly vulnerable to Varroa mites because they lack the behavioral, chemical and immune-based strategies of their eastern cousins to resist or tolerate infestation. The Varroa genomes harbor just the type of detailed information scientists need to help western honey bees.

Varroa mites take the lonely road to parasitism

In their first look at the new V. jacobsoni and improved V. destructor genomes, the team found something unexpected.

“The evolutionary trajectories of both mites, despite their similarities and close relatedness, were completely dissimilar,” said Dr. Mikheyev.

Both genomes had more than 200 genes under positive selection, sure signs of recent adaptation to their bee hosts. But less than 10 percent of the genes under positive selection in V. destructor were also under positive selection in V. jacobsoni. The researchers also discovered tandem duplications in dozens of genes, something they could only see using Hi-C. But again, there was high divergence between the Varroa species. About 63 percent of duplications were found only in the V. destructor genome, and just under half were unique to V. jacobsoni.

Some of the genes under selection or duplication in V. destructor were involved in cellular processes such as RNA splicing, alcohol response, membrane depolarization, and development of myofibroblasts and retinal cells. High-selection or duplicated genes in V. jacobsoni were involved in mitochondrial protein processing, vitamin K metabolism, pH response, and gonad development. The two Varroa species, it seems, took different cellular routes to bring bees to heel.

Despite these differences, many genes under positive selection in one or both Varroa species are involved in the same general physiological properties, such as metabolizing toxins, which could play a role in developing resistance to miticides. Genes undergoing duplication or positive selection in both Varroa mites are also involved in stress tolerance, molting, nutrition and reproduction.

From past to future

Image credits: Eric Ward.

This initial study is a work of history — revealing the genes under positive selection or duplication due to past and present selective forces on Varroa mites. Scientists need this detailed bounty of level of genomic data to help develop effective anti-Varroa measures.

“Curiously, in both species, genes involved in stress tolerance and detoxification were already under selection,” said Dr. Mikheyev. “This most likely happened before they ever faced miticides and suggests that they may have pre-adapted strategies for dealing with our chemical warfare strategies against them.”

The researchers have made both Varroa genomes publicly available, so other teams can mine the sequences for additional data about the evolution, adaptation and potential control of these parasites.

Dr. Mikheyev next wants to turn these genomic tools toward new goals, such as identifying genes that help Varroa mites switch hosts. That type of information may help scientists give the western honey bee a leg up over a new scourge that — so far — just won’t let go.

This is a guest article from Kaylee Mueller, of Phase Genomics.

Queen bumblebees take long breaks in the grass after hibernating

Scientists working in the UK have discovered a previously unknown behavior of queen bumblebees: they spend the majority of time hiding in the grass before starting a new colony.

Bumblebee queens spend a lot of time resting on the ground, researchers say. Image via Wiki Commons.

There are over 250 species of bumblebees, and most of them are social insects, forming colonies and relying on a single queen to produce offspring — as well as new queens, for new colonies. However, not much is known about queen behavior after it emerges from winter hibernation.

In order to address this, a team of researchers from the Queen Mary University of London placed small radar antennas on the backs of queens that had just emerged from artificially-induced hibernation, to see what these queens would do after emerging. The antennas were small enough to not impede the movements of the bees but allowed researchers to trace them.

Dr. James Makinson, who co-led the study, said:

“We wanted to see what queens actually do right after they emerge. By combining state-of-the-art tracking technology with wild bee observations, we were able to uncover a never before seen behavior of queen bumblebees.”

During the winter, queen bumblebees hibernate in the ground and when spring comes, they start looking for a suitable site for a nest. The traditional idea was that after hibernating, the queens start feeding and disperse quickly to find a new colony. But results contradicted this theory.

Queen bumblebee with an attached antenna. Image credits: James Makinson.

The radar data showed that the queens were spending most of the time on the ground. They would fly for 10-20 seconds in seemingly random directions and then spend 10-20 minutes on the ground, resting. This pattern was confirmed by observations on wild queen bumblebees.

Researchers then carried out computer models of this behavior, finding that it can explain how the queens end up starting a colony kilometers away from their hibernation site. Dr. Joe Woodgate, a co-lead author, said:

“Our study suggests that a few weeks of this type of behaviour would carry queen bees several kilometers away from their hibernation site and might explain how queens disperse from the nest in which they were born to the place they choose to found a new colony.”

“Better understanding the behavior of queens during this crucial period of their lives can suggest practices to improve their chances of successfully founding new colonies and help their survival,” he adds.

The dispersal of animals from their birth place has profound effects on the immediate survival and longer-term persistence of populations, researchers write, and this study is particularly important as bees all around the world are facing a steep decline, with no clear solution in sight. Plating bee-friendly plants in urban areas can provide much-needed oases for bees, and now, this study suggests that “green corridors” could further help them.

“Our findings suggest that creating pollinator friendly corridors between conserved landscape patches would be helpful. It would also be beneficial to plant pollinator friendly flowers and trees all year round, giving bumblebee queens ample access to food during their early spring emergence. And leaving vegetation, such as leaf litter and long grass, undisturbed until late in the spring would give queen bumblebees safe places to rest,” adds Makinson.

If you see an exhausted queen bee on the ground, researchers suggest that you can rescue her by providing a teaspoon of sugary water (half water, half sugar, stirred). Simply put the solution on a teaspoon and place it gently near her antennae or mouth-parts, and then giving her time to drink it. The solution could give the bee that extra drop of energy she needs to be able to fly on its own and ultimately start a new colony. This small gesture could do a lot of good.

Image credits: David Attenborough.

Journal Reference: ‘Harmonic radar tracking reveals random dispersal pattern of bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens after hibernation’. Makinson et al. Scientific ReportsDOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-40355-6

Wallace's giant bee is about four times larger than a honeybee. Credit: Global Wildlife Conservation.

World’s largest bee makes a comeback from the dead

Wallace's giant bee is about four times larger than a honeybee. Credit: Global Wildlife Conservation.

Wallace’s giant bee is about four times larger than a honeybee. Credit: Global Wildlife Conservation.

After being missing in the action for more than four decades, Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) has been found in a remote part of Indonesia. The huge insect with enormous jaws — about the size of a human thumb — is the largest bee species in the world.

The ‘flying bulldog’

The giant bee, also known as the ‘flying bulldog’, was first discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, famous for independently proposing the theory of evolution through natural selection alongside Charles Darwin. When Wallace first came across the beefy insect in Indonesia’s North Moluccas islands in 1858, he described it as a “large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle.”

Despite its conspicuous size, Wallace’s giant bee likes to keep to itself. For more than a century it hadn’t been spotted by Western scientists, only to be seen again by entomologist Adam Messer in 1981, who called it the ‘king of bees’. The lack of sightings, despite scientists’ best efforts, coupled with wide scale habitat loss, has led many to believe that the insect had gone extinct. Although Indonesia has abundant flora, it’s also a country where regulations are weak and forests are being cut down for agriculture.

But then Clay Bolt, a specialist bee photographer, did the unimaginable: he found Wallace’s giant bee, where many others had failed before him. Several months prior to the discovery, Bolt was introduced to a museum specimen of the giant bee by Eli Wyman, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. The two quickly bonded through their shared interest of seeing the bee in the wild and hatched a plan for an expedition.

Natural history photographer Clay Bolt makes the first ever photos of a living Wallace’s giant bee. Credit:  Simon Robson.

Natural history photographer Clay Bolt takes the first ever photos of a living Wallace’s giant bee. Credit: Simon Robson.

In January, the two had arrived with a search party in Indonesia where they explored the rainforest in North Moluccas. For a week, the crew braved extreme heat, humidity, and thunderstorms, as they looked for the giant bee’s nests that are typically carved into termite mounds in trees. They were down to their last day with nothing to show when a guide spotted a promising low-lying termite mound. When they peeked inside the resin-covered enclosure, the explorers thought they had spotted a snake. To everyone’s surprise, they found that the creature making a racket inside was a Wallace’s giant bee. They quickly blocked the nest’s exit and collected the bee.

“We were just basically freaking out after so many years of planning and almost giving up hope,” Bolt told Earther. “It was an incredible moment to realize that we came all this way, other people have looked for it, and here we were: filthy and sweaty and we somehow found this insect. For me, it was a moment of tremendous gratitude and humility that I was a part of this moment and this team.”

Rediscovering the giant bee is certainly a breakthrough — yet the real tough part is only just beginning. Now, researchers will have to work on plans designed to protect the species, which will require more studies that might estimate how many individuals are left and what the state of their habitat is. The fact that the bees live in very remote locations is reassuring, but there is still a lot we don’t know about this elusive species.

“I hope this rediscovery will spark future research that will give us a deeper understanding of the life history of this very unique bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction,” Wyman said in a statement.


New sensor backpacks could turn bees into crop-monitoring drones

Drones? No thank you — I prefer backpacking bees.


Image credits Suzanne D. Williams.

Engineers from the University of Washington (UW) plans to give farmers a powerful (and adorable) alternative to drones. The team has developed tiny sensor systems that can fit on the back of a bumblebee without restricting the insects’ ability to fly. Such a package only requires a tiny battery to operate for up to seven hours at a time, and can recharge while the bees sleep in their hive at night.

BEElievable readings

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

It’s not the first time researchers have thought of ‘sensorising’ bees. The insects have one massive advantage over drones: they fly on their own power. However, they can’t carry much weight, limiting the range of sensors they can be fitted with. This also makes GPS receivers (which require a lot of energy and, thus, heavy batteries, to run) completely out of the question. Because of that, the farthest researchers have ever gotten was to superglue simple RFID (radio-frequency identification) backpacks onto bees to follow their movement. However, such RFID packs were a proof-of-concept and of limited use — they only worked for distances of about 10 inches and didn’t carry any sensing equipment.

The UW team needed sensors that were able to both accurately tell their location and fit on the tiny backs of bees for this research to pan out. They decided on using bumblebees (genus Bombus) since they’re beefier and can handle the weight of a tiny battery, says co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student at the UW. These batteries, while small, could power an array of sensors for much longer than a conventional drone could be kept operational. Furthermore, they can be wirelessly recharged every night when the bees go to sleep.

The backpack they developed weighs only 102 milligrams, which the team says is roughly the weight of seven grains of uncooked rice. Bees are placed in a cold environment for a short while to slow them down, and the packs are glued to their back. The researchers used a similar method to remove the packs.

“The rechargeable battery powering the backpack weighs about 70 milligrams, so we had a little over 30 milligrams left for everything else, like the sensors and the localization system to track the insect’s position,” said co-author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School.

Because GPS receivers weren’t a viable option, the team developed a unique method of localizing the backpack-toting bees. They set up multiple antennas, each broadcasting signals from a base station across a specific area. A receiver installed in the backpacks could pick up on the intensity and direction of the incoming signal to triangulate its position in space.

The team tested their localization system by installing four antennas on one side of a soccer field and carried a bee-with-backpack around the field in a jar. As long as they stood within 80 meters (roughly three-quarters the length of a soccer field) of the antennas, their system could accurately triangulate the bee’s position.

Small sensors monitoring temperature, humidity, and light intensity were later added to the pack. These would allow bees to collect and log data (along with their location) as they buzzed around the farm.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.'”

The data is uploaded from the backpacks into storage via backscatter when the bees return to the hive. Backscatter is a method through which devices can share information by reflecting radio waves in the environment. Right now, the team says, their packs can store about 30 kilobytes of data (which is very little), and can only upload it once they return to the hive. Going forward, the team would like to develop backpacks with live-stream cameras so farmers can monitor plant health in real time. Such a pack, however, would require instant upload capabilities (or, at least, much larger data storage).

“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” Gollakota said. “With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly, while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”

The team will present its findings online at the ACM MobiCom 2019 conference.


Researchers want to vaccinate bees so we don’t run out of food

The world’s first bee-protecting vaccine raises new hope of saving these vital pollinators and preventing a global food crisis.


Image via Pixabay.

Finnish researchers want to push back against colony collapse disorder (CCD) by giving our buzzing friends tiny little vaccines. The Helsinki University team hopes their work will help tackle the dramatic decline bees have seen in the last few years. Even if only a few percent of their overall population is kept alive by the vaccine, the team will have “saved the world a little bit,” they say.


“If we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit,” said lead researcher Dalial Freitak for AFP.

“Even a two-to-three percent increase in the bee population would be humongous.”

Bees are, quite simply, the unsung heroes of farms everywhere. Our agriculture heavily relies on the work these animals provide for free — bees are directly involved in the pollination of three-quarters of the world. However, we don’t take particularly good care of them. In recent years, bee populations everywhere have been dying off from “colony collapse disorder“. This disorder is poorly understood and seems to be the work of mites, pesticides, virus, fungus, or some combination of these factors — however, no explanation has managed to impose itself thus far.

What we do know about CCD is that it is extremely deadly to bees as a species. Worker bees in a CCD-stricken hive will simply up and leave, abandoning the queen, the honey, the eggs, and a few nurse bees. The disorder is known to affect both feral and kept bees and is particularly troubling for the fact that those abandoned honey stashes are usually not robbed by other bees for a long time.

But the problem is best viewed in context. While the bees themselves are a key pollinating species, they’re not the only one — but all pollinators are struggling to cope with us. A UN-led 2016 study found that over 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction (with CCD as a leading cause). The study also found that 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators, such as birds and bats, are under threat. Diseases just one of a number of reasons for the loss of pollinators. Pesticide use and intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects’ nutrition, are also weakening pollinators

We rely on these species to put food on our table. That’s why the team decided to try and heal the bees.

Their vaccine works pretty much like human ones: it gives bees resistance to severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for whole communities. Where it differs is in how it’s administered: insects don’t really produce antibodies like we do (and on which human-use vaccines rely).

However, previous research by lead researcher Dalial Freitak found that feeding certain bacteria to moths will allow them to pass immunity to their offspring. They could quite literally eat their way to resistance against disease. However, the underlying mechanism was unclear, and Freitak worked with co-author Heli Salmela to get to the bottom of it.

“I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honey bees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like, ‘OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another’.”

The two collaborated and developed a vaccine against American foulbrood, a vicious bee bacterial disease spread around the globe. The treatment is administered to the queen bee via a sugar lump. The queen then passes the immunity to her offspring, spreading it through the bee community.

The team is also working on making these vaccines commercially available. While feedback has been “very positive”, Freitak admits that the process is very slow and cites four to five years to market as “an optimistic estimate”.

Hopefully, their efforts will bear fruit. If they do manage to get this vaccine out in meaningful numbers, the team is confident that protection against disease will make pollinator species stronger, and therefore better able to withstand other threats.


Glyphosate might be killing bees by messing with their gut bacteria


Credit: Pixabay.

Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, has been in wide use since the 1970s with farmers looking to control weeds. Its manufacturer, Monsanto, has always claimed that the chemical only affects plants, being harmless to animals. A new study, however, shows that Glyphosate may be indirectly killing bees by disrupting the microbial community living in their digestive system. As such, the most popular herbicide in the world may be another important factor contributing to the alarming decline in bee populations all over the globe.

“We need better guidelines for glyphosate use, especially regarding bee exposure, because right now the guidelines assume bees are not harmed by the herbicide,” said Erick Motta, a graduate student at the University of Texas Austin, who led the research. “Our study shows that’s not true.”

Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill most plants — including crops and weeds. It works by blocking a specific enzyme, the shikimic acid pathway, which prevents the plant from making key proteins required for growth. The shikimic acid pathway is not found in animals, which is why glyphosate is deemed non-toxic to humans.

However, the enzyme is used by some bacteria. Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin wondered whether glyphosate might be affecting bacteria strains living in the intestines of honey bees (Apis mellifera). They collected 2,000 bees from a hive and fed them sugar syrup dosed with herbicide levels they might encounter in real life.

Three days after they returned to their hives, the glyphosate-exposed bees had fewer Snodgrassella alvi bacteria in their guts than those which were not exposed. Confusingly, the bees that got the highest dose of glyphosate had a microbiome closer to optimal levels compared to bees that received the lowest dose of the herbicide. The researchers say that this may be due to the fact that bees with the highest dose died, leaving behind the resistant variety.

Things become clearer in later tests that showed that glyphosate-laden bees had five times less of the S. alvi bacterium. And when the researchers cultured the bacteria in a petri dish, its growth was very slow or stopped altogether when exposed to a high dose of glyphosate.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors suspect that changes in the bee’s microbiome make the bees more vulnerable to infections. Only 12% of the bees fed with glyphosate survived an infection from Serratia marcescens compared with 47% that were not fed glyphosate. S. marcescens is a bacteria that is widely found in beehives and bee guts that can invade other parts of a bee’s body, leading to lethal infections.

“Studies in humans, bees and other animals have shown that the gut microbiome is a stable community that resists infection by opportunistic invaders,” Moran said. “So if you disrupt the normal, stable community, you are more susceptible to this invasion of pathogens.”

S. alvi lines part of the gut wall and, as such, could act as an insulating layer against the potentially lethal S. marcescens. Additionally, S. alvi also secrets a chemical that can disrupt the invading bacterium.

The findings offer an alternative explanation for the massive decline in bee populations seen all over the world. For instance, beekeepers in the U.S. lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies in just one year, between April 2014 and April 2015.

“Since the 1980s, honeybees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides, ” the USDA notes. But deaths began to spike in the middle of the past decade, when a phenomenon in which bees deserted their hives and died en masse – later named colony collapse disorder – began sweeping hives worldwide. “Commercial keepers were particularly prone to summer losses.”

Previously, scientists have linked colony collapse disorder (CCD) with pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, parasites, stress, and lack of flowers. In this constellation of stressors threatening the most important pollinators on the planet, glyphosate may also pose an important risk.

“It’s not the only thing causing all these bee deaths, but it is definitely something people should worry about because glyphosate is used everywhere,” said Motta.

The findings also raise some important questions about glyphosate’s safety. Perhaps it is affecting the microbiome of other animals, including humans. Previously, the science has been conflicting in its assessment of whether the chemical is carcinogenic or not.


Honeybee clusters act as ‘super-organisms’ to keep everyone safe during bad weather

New research investigates how bees shape and maintain their temporary travel-homes.


Image via Pixabay.

Researchers from the Harvard University (HU) report that honeybees make a group effort to keep the colony safe during their travels. The study looked into the mechanisms by which the insects keep their temporary clumps intact during adverse weather conditions — and found a surprisingly complex system born from relatively simple beings.


Once every year, honeybee (Apis mellifera) queens leave the nest, with their subjects in tow, to establish new colonies. That’s faster said than done, however, and while the bees search for a new place of residence, they have to camp underneath the stars.

In order to keep everybody safe during these times, the bees draw together into masses usually referred to as clumps or clusters. These structures — constructed entirely out of living, buzzing bees clinging together — generally form into a cone-shape. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, however, these cones tend to change shape, previous research has shown. Most intriguingly, they seem to adapt their shape to the particular conditions they’re faced with — even if the bees, individually, have no way of knowing what shape would work best.

Curious to see how the bees knew what they had to do as conditions worsened, the HU team gathered wild bees and placed them in a container in the lab. Here, the bees were allowed to form a cluster from a movable apparatus that the team supplied for them.

After the cluster formed, the team moved their apparatus back and forth or up and down to pull on the cluster. These motions were intended to simulate the effect of wind pushing on the cluster’s support — for example a branch. The team’s cluster dutifully changed shape — in the case of back-and-forth movement, it flattened, slowly ‘hugging’ the device.

Honeybee clusters.

a) Bee clusters on a tree branch. b) The experimental set-up. c) The top panel shows the acceleration of the board versus time. The middle and bottom panels show how the bee cluster adapts its shape.
Image credits O. Peleg, J. M. Peters, M. K. Salcedo & L. Mahadevan, 2018, Nature Phys.

Such a shape is better suited to dealing with incoming wind, the team writes, just like a person lying on the ground versus somebody standing up in heavy winds.

The honeybees’ activity was recorded with slow-motion video cameras so that the team could track their movement on the cluster’s surface. By watching the insects’ movements, the team also came up with a hypothesis — the bees, after feeling themselves pulled from the ones they were holding on to, moved to a place of higher stress.

In order to test this idea, the group created a computer simulation of the honeybees and the cluster they form. Simulated bees on the outer surface were given the ability to feel stress and react to it by moving to a position of higher stress. In the end, the team writes, the virtual bees changed their cluster in the same way as real honeybees were observed to do in the lab — very strong evidence that the team’s theory was correct.

The simulations also helped explain why up and down movements didn’t elicit a shape-change from the cluster; these movements, the team reports, do “not lead to significant differential strains and thus no shape adaptation” — i.e. they don’t bother the colony enough to require a response.

“Together, our findings highlight how a super-organismal structure responds to dynamic loading by actively changing its morphology to improve the collective stability of the cluster at the expense of increasing the average mechanical burden of an individual,” the paper concludes.

The paper “Collective mechanical adaptation of honeybee swarms” has been published in the journal Nature Physics.

David Attenborough urges people to save bees with an adorable teaspoon gesture

Image credits: David Attenborough.

As bee numbers continue to plummet, they need every bit of help. Sure, the big difference will come from reducing our use of pesticides and protecting the ecosystems that bees rely on, but even small, individual gestures are significant.

As David Attenborough explained, bees running low on energy are often mistaken for dead, when in fact they just need a bit of rehydration and energy. He wrote:

“This time of year bees can often look like they are dying or dead, however, they’re far from it. Bees can become tired and they simply don’t have enough energy to return to the hive which can often result in being swept away.

“If you find a tired bee in your home, a simple solution of sugar and water will help revive an exhausted bee.

“Simply mix two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water, and place on a spoon for the bee to reach. You can also help by sharing this post to raise awareness.

The call did not remain unheeded, and many fans posted their own ideas and results.

There are several things you can do on your own to help bees (and other pollinators), whether you live in an urban or a rural area. Here are some of them.

  • set up a bee-friendly garden (or victory garden) — you don’t need to be a specialist or know anything about gardens. Just opt for simple, diverse plants that bloom. Bees love flowers and herbs of all sorts. If you don’t have a garden, you can just use pots.
  • plant around the year — it’s important to have flowers that bloom in all seasons, or as many of them as possible. Some bee species are active all year, others only in April and May, still others in July and August, and they all need to eat something tasty.
  • go easy on the chemicals — if you’re working on your own garden or pots, odds are you don’t need to use any chemicals. But if you do, make sure to opt for bee-friendly substances.
  • let the grass grow — mowed lawns can look good, but taller grass helps offers bees much-needed shelter.
  • use peat-free compost — peats are threatened habitats, there are plenty of alternatives available.
  • choose ethically-sourced honey — not all bee-keepers are the same.

Bee populations have been dwindling, with the reasons not being completely clear. However, numerous studies show that pesticides (especially a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids) are one of the main causes. Urbanization and a constant reduction in habitats are also to blame, as are industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens, and climate change.

As bees are crucial pollinators, a world without bees would also mean a world without fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Thankfully, many countries are already taking much-needed steps to protect the tiny critters. After several European countries have already implemented partial neonicotinoid bans, the European Union as a whole passed a total ban total ban on bee-harming pesticides.


Walmart silently filed a patent for robotic bees meant to pollinate crops

Walmart is making moves on the bee’s share of agriculture — the company recently filed a patent for autonomous, robotic bees.


“I can’t beelieve you’re after my job too!”
Image credits USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Flickr.

Anxious about the food supply? Don’t blame you. Pollinators at large, and bees in particular, are struggling to adapt to the Anthropocene world — and they’re dropping dead in huge numbers while at it. But fret not, for retail giant Walmart is determined to soothe your fears; mainly by replacing them with an equally disturbing, Black Mirror-esque premise.

In a move first reported on by CB Insights, Walmart has filed a patent for autonomous bees. Technically called ‘pollination drones’, these robots are meant to do just that: pollinate crops in lieu of real bees. They would carry pollen from one plant to another, relying on cameras and other sensors to identify crops and their flowers.

The patent appears alongside five other patents for farming drones, including one that would keep an eye out for pests and another tasked with monitoring crop health. It’s not yet clear what Walmart plans to do with these patents; Business Insider tried to contact Walmart, but so far they didn’t respond to their request for comment.

I think it’s safe to assume that the company wants to get into agriculture, to gain more control over its food supply chain. It’s a likely avenue of interest for Walmart, as it has been focusing on improving its grocery delivery business recently. Earlier this week, they’ve announced plans to expand it to over 800 new stores, which would give them a huge reach — some 40% of all households in the US.

Walmart, however, is not the only one tinkering with mechano-bees. Research into this area has gained traction in recent years, mostly spurred on by the decline of honeybees. These insects, which currently pollinate roughly one-third of the food we eat, are dying in huge numbers at an unprecedented rate — largely because of a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. The death rate declined in 2017 compared to previous years, but between habitat destruction and climate change, the outlook is still very, very bleak.

Artificial pollination

Back in 2013, researchers at the Harvard University unveiled the first RoboBees. At the time, they needed to be tethered to a power source even when flying or hovering; since then, the bees have gained energy independence, the ability to stick to surfaces, even dive in and out of water and swim. While they can’t yet be remotely controlled, the researchers hope these bots could help cushion the blow, should the bees become unable to carry our agricultural needs (which they’ve been doing for free).

The robotic bees described in Walmart’s patent, however, would have this capability, along with the ability to automatically detect pollen. That already puts them at a considerable advantage from Harvard’s bees, as it would theoretically allow them to work in farms, rather than just in the lab.

Is this a good thing? Don’t get me wrong, I like eating; anything that keeps that up is a win in my book. But I can’t shake the feeling that we should have never gotten to the point where we can say that our actions are realistically threatening pollinators. By extension, that we are threatening our own metaphorical bread. And veggies. Fruits too.

From a technological standpoint, I’m a huge fan of both Harvard’s and Walmart’s bees. I’d probably pollinate some crops myself if that would mean I’d get to tinker with them and see how they work.

From a ‘superior intelligent being’ point of view… I can’t help but be disappointed that we’ve gotten here. And a bit melancholy that my kids and their kids, in turn, might not see a live bee. Just a beebot. And no matter how technologically dazzling that robot will be, its wings will buzz with the sound of our shortcomings.

It’s official: pesticides are harming the bees

A new, comprehensive report from European scientists confirms what many researchers have already been warning about: a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids poses a danger to wild bees and managed honey bees. The report analyzed over 1,500 studies on the issue.

“This report certainly strengthens the case for further restrictions on neonicotinoid use,” entomologist Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., said in a statement.

Bees are going through a dramatic decline. Global populations are dwindling, we don’t know why, and we’re not exactly sure how to stop it. But more and more evidence is mounting that this is connected to neonicotinoids, the world’s most popular class of insecticides.

Neonicotinoids (also called neonics) are used to coat seeds to protect them when they are sown. They’re essentially nerve agents. When the seed germinates, it spreads the pesticide throughout the plant, protecting it entirely from pests. But the substance also spreads through the pollen and nectar, where it can be absorbed by unfortunate pollinators — particularly, bees.

Many studies have linked neonics to honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a decline in birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Pesticide producers have contested the studies, however, saying that they are inconsistent and unrealistic. The new report found that most of the damage doesn’t necessarily come through the nectar and pollen directly, but rather through secondary soil and water contamination. The pesticides are spreading through the entire ecosystem, where they are causing widespread damage. While there was some variability in the study, the results were conclusive enough to support a total ban on these pesticides.

“There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure,” said Jose Tarazona, head of the European Food Safety Authority’s pesticides unit. “Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.”

Furthermore, as the neonics spread and seep through the ecosystem, it’s only a matter of time before pests start developing resistance, Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee School of Medicine in the United Kingdom noted in a statement.

The study only analyzed the impact of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam — all of which have been banned in the European Union but are still allowed widely used elsewhere in the world, including the US. The European Commission has proposed extending the ban to all pesticides in this class, but such measures haven’t been adopted thus far.

“This is strengthening the scientific basis for the Commission’s proposal to ban outdoor use of the three neonicotinoids,” according to a commission statement.

Climate change might cause a coffee crisis, but there’s still hope

New research finds that the world’s largest coffee-producing areas could shrink by a whopping 88 percent by 2050, due to climate change.

Coffee plants are highly vulnerable to climate change.

Coffee black, two sugars, one climate change

This is a bad one. Coffee, one of the world’s most cherished beverages, could soon become a scarce commodity if we don’t take action, researchers say.

David Roubik, an entomologist and senior staff scientist for ecology, behavior and evolution at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, analyzed how climate change will affect coffee growers, and the results aren’t good.

Coffee only grows at specific temperatures around the tropics, which innately makes it vulnerable to shifting temperatures. As is the case with other fussy crops (such as grapevine, for instance), growers will be forced to move either to higher altitudes or relocate to cooler places. But that’s never easy, and sometimes, it’s impossible to recreate the conditions you started with. You might end up with a similar temperature, but different soils or rainfall. Furthermore, in many parts of the world, relocation is simply not an option. For instance, countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela just aren’t mountainous enough, so farmers can’t really move higher.

These regions “are less mountainous, so that coffee and bees have fewer options to move uphill,” Taylor Ricketts, the director of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment and a co-author of the recent study, told Business Insider.

This will threaten not only global coffee production but also the livelihood of many farmers.

The scenario repeats itself in several parts of the world. Coffee farmers will have to move, but in some places, they just won’t be able to. While similar things will happen for many crops, coffee is particularly vulnerable.

There are two varieties of coffee: “robusta,” which as the name says, is more robust and tolerates a wider range of soils and temperatures, and “arabica,” which is way less tolerant. The problem is that the more resilient robusta isn’t anywhere near the arabica, so people enjoy starting their day with an arabica, putting a lot of stress on already challenged environments.

It’s not just the direct effect of climate change. Indirectly, coffee growers will be hit even stronger, due to the impact rising temperatures will have on pollinators.

The bee’s knees

Coffee flower and bee — a match made in heaven. Photo by Lilibeth Serrano, USFWS.

We often talk about the “bee problem” — how bee numbers are going down year after year, with no clear solution in sight. But we don’t often consider that the bee problem is also our problem. Bees are the unsung heroes of our day to day meals, pollinating much of what the world eats; and drinks.

Coffee is also greatly dependent on bees to pollinate it, and this is one of the reasons why previous predictions were so inaccurate, Rickets and Roubik say: they failed to consider the effect of pollinators. Taking this into account and looking at several climate change scenarios, researchers say things are way worse than we thought.

“Our results suggest that coffee-suitable areas will be reduced 73–88% by 2050 across warming scenarios, a decline 46–76% greater than estimated by global assessments,” the study reads. 

So things get even more complicated for farmers: they not only have to ensure suitable available geographical areas for future crops, but also to ensure that these areas can serve as habitats for pollinator populations. Aside from a habitat, bees also need year-round pollen sources, other than the crops used by humans. If this doesn’t happen, then coffee productivity will go down severely.

“Coffee is one of those plants that can pollinate itself and does produce some fruit with no animals going between the flowers,” Roubik says, “but when you do have things carrying pollen between plants then production is quite a bit greater. The fruit is bigger and heavier if it is pollinated that way.”

Also, this doesn’t only refer to the honeybee, but also to other species — including a particularly nasty one. The invasive Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera), more commonly known as a killer bee, can pose serious threats to humans, but it’s a great pollinator for many plant species in South America, including coffee. Farmers need to consider developing habitats even for such species if they want to enjoy rich crops.

It’s not all bad. Growers can ensure the sustainability of their business, but they need to consider coupled effects of climate change on crop suitability and pollination. Authors note forest conservation, shade adjustment, crop rotation, or status quo as significant strategies to ensure this goal.

However, they add, there is more bad news than good. Even under optimistic scenarios, coffee diversity will dip by more than 10%, and under less optimistic scenarios, things will be much worse. This doesn’t only mean that coffee will become more expensive and less available, but that many millions of people might lose their livelihood.

“Coffee is grown by roughly 25 million farmers in more than 60 tropical countries worldwide. In all, probably 100 million people are involved in its production, most of them rural and poor,” said Ricketts.

“Climate change threatens the primary livelihoods of millions of people.”

Journal Reference: Pablo Imbach et al. Coupling of pollination services and coffee suitability under climate change. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1617940114