Tag Archives: honeybee

Scientists find gene responsible for virgin birth in honeybees

Cape honey bee workers laying parasitic eggs on a queen cell. Credit: Professor Benjamin Oldroyd/University of Sydney.

Australian researchers at the University of Sydney have solved a puzzle that has been fascinating biologists for decades. In a new study published this week, they described a single gene that enables Cape honeybees to reproduce without having sex.

“It is extremely exciting,” said Professor Benjamin Oldroyd, who is a behavioral geneticist at the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences and a co-author of the paper. “Scientists have been looking for this gene for the last 30 years. Now that we know it’s on chromosome 11, we have solved a mystery.”

Sex persists as a dominant mode of reproduction because it allows for sexual selection. This helps to minimize the buildup of mutations seen in all-female asexual populations.

Before sex evolved all reproduction was done asexually, which entails cellular division – an organism splits in half to form two new ones.

“Sex is a weird way to reproduce and yet it is the most common form of reproduction for animals and plants on the planet. It’s a major biological mystery why there is so much sex going on and it doesn’t make evolutionary sense. Asexuality is a much more efficient way to reproduce, and every now and then we see a species revert to it,” Oldroyd said in a statement.

The Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) is a subspecies of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) and is native to the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. In their ecosystem, these insects play a major role as pollinators, just like other strains of honeybees.

While still retaining the characteristic honeybee striped abdomen, the Cape honeybee is darker in color compared to other honeybees. 

The lifecycle of a Cape honeybee begins with the queen bee laying an egg in each cell in the comb of the hive. The eggs hatch into grub-like larvae, which are fed and taken care of by nurse worker bees. A week later, the larvae develop into pupae, before emerging as adult bees one week later.

Cape honeybees are unique among their honeybees because workers can lay diploid female eggs, instead of the normal male eggs that other honeybees lay.

“Males are mostly useless,” Professor Oldroyd said. “But Cape workers can become genetically reincarnated as a female queen and that prospect changes everything.”

While it has its benefits, this behavior also introduces conflict in what should have otherwise been a cooperative society. Since any worker can be genetically reincarnated as the next bee, this creates inherent friction between workers that often fight among themselves for the coveted spot of mother to the next queen.

These traits also lead to a propensity for social parasitism. Cape honeybees often invade the foreign colonies of African honeybees, which can impact their numbers and even cause their collapse. This has been thoroughly documented previously in parts of South Africa where the Cape honeybee was introduced in areas north of the country.

It’s believed that at least 10,000 colonies of commercial beehives collapse each year due to invasions of Cape honeybees.

For three decades, scientists have sought to understand the genetics that underly the Cape honeybees’ unique reproduction. Writing in the journal Current Biology, Oldroyd and colleagues report that a single gene, known as GB45239 on chromosome 11, is responsible for the virgin births.

“Further study of Cape bees could give us insight into two major evolutionary transitions: the origin of sex and the origin of animal societies,” Professor Oldroyd said.

What’s more, the discovery might one day be used to genetically engineer high-yield crops and useful biotech.

“If we could control a switch that allows animals to reproduce asexually, that would have important applications in agriculture, biotechnology and many other fields,” Professor Oldroyd said. For instance, many pest ant species like fire ants are thelytokous, though unfortunately it seems to be a different gene to the one found in Capensis.”

When in trouble, just surf — that’s what honeybees do

A thirsty honeybee can sometimes get its wings wet when it ventures too close to a pond. With its wings soaked, the insect is no longer able to fly and free itself from the water’s surface. But all is not lost for the honeybee. According to a surprising new study, honeybees are able to astonishingly use their wings as hydrofoils. They are capable of essentially surfing all the way to shore, even if that means slowly covering a distance thousands of times greater than their body size.

Asymmetrical wave pattern produced by a honeybee on the water’s surface. Credit: Chris Roh.

Chris Roh, an engineer at Caltech’s Graduate Aerospace Laboratories, first noticed this behavior while observing a bee that was stuck in the water of a still pond on the university’s campus. He was stunned to see that the bee’s beating wings generated tiny waves across the pond’s surface. Was the honeybee trying to escape? And, if so, could it ever be successful?

To find out, Roh enlisted the help fellow colleague Morteza Gharib, who is an expert in biomechanical engineering, and studied 33 bees collected from a garden in Pasadena, California, in a controlled environment.

The bees were gently released from plastic tubes, from where they directly fell into about two inches of water. High-speed cameras recorded the insects as they began to struggle, measuring the strength and frequency of their wingbeats, as well as the waves they produced.

Turns out, the bees could escape.

The pair of researchers found that the bees fluttered with a slower and shallower pace than they use for flying. Their wingbeats created asymmetric wave patterns that differed in the front and rear of the insects, pushing them forward at a rate of 3 bee body lengths per second. Every thrust generates ∼20-μN (20 millionths of a Newton) of force.

“The motion of the bee’s wings creates a wave that its body is able to ride forward,” Gharib says. “It hydrofoils, or surfs, toward safety.”

Although bees aren’t the fastest insects in the water, by a large margin, this was the first time that scientists have observed an insect using hydrofoiling. It may represent a unique adaptation to bees.

Unfortunately, the insects can’t keep surfing forever. Experiments suggest that honeybees can only sustain the motion for no more than 10 minutes, after which they show signs of muscle fatigue.

Roh and Gharib claim that these insights might one day be employed to design a vehicle capable of both aerial and aquatic propulsion.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seminal fluid blinds honeybee queens so they’re less likely to mate with other males

Carniolan Queen Bee in the hive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In many social species, the reproductive strategies of males and females are so different that they often cross the barrier into conflict. Take honeybees, for instance. A new study found that inseminated honeybee queens can become visually impaired, thereby reducing their chances of mating with other males.

The sexual arms race

Males often employ strategies that increase their fertilization success whereas females tend to want the best genes for their offspring. Honeybee queens have a short of a period of time during their early lives when they fly out of their hives to mate with as many males as they can in order to enhance genetic diversity, thus improving hive health.

After her first flight, a queen may embark in subsequent flights out of the hive to find more males. For males which already mated with the queen, this behavior is against their agenda of passing down their own genes to offspring. So, to null the competition, the males have developed a biological trick to offer them a sexual advantage.

Previous observations have suggested that insemination alters the activity of genes connected to vision in the queen’s brain. In a new study, researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Western Australia sought to verify this hypothesis.

The study showed that, indeed, seminal fluid can trigger changes in the activity of vision-related genes in honeybee queens. In experiments, queens that were inseminated with seminal fluid were less responsive to light whereas, queens that were exposed to an inert saline solution could sense the stimulus. What’s more, tracking devices mounted on inseminated queens showed that the insects left for mating flights sooner but were also more likely to get lost and not return to their hives.

The findings, which were published in the journal eLife, show that males have developed this tactic in order to reduce a queen’s possibility to complete more mating runs. But the queens haven’t stood idle. To counter the debilitating effects of male sperm, the queens leave for mating flights sooner, which increases their chances of finding more mates and increase the genetic diversity of their colonies.

In the future, the researchers plan on conducting more studies that might determine whether this ‘arms race’ is affected by seasons, bee race, and geography. Beyond unraveling a fascinating fascet of mating in the animal kingdom, the findings could also find practical use. The information could be exploited by beekeepers whose business depend on queen mating success and hive health.

This is just an example out of numerous instances of male adaptions to sperm competition that gives rise to sexual conflict — i.e. traits that increase the fitness of one sex while reducing the fitness of the other. Male cockroaches that have become sperm depleted will guard females to enforce monogamy.

Other species employ strategies that involve blocking the female genital tract with a copulatory plug — there is evidence for this in rodents, in which a number of different ejaculatory proteins form the plug. And another way for males to maximize fitness returns when faced with the risk of sperm competition is to simply ‘care less’. Such males will either not mate with or allocate fewer resources to already mated females. If males allocate fewer resources (i.e., fewer sperm or smaller ejaculates), or are less willing to mate with nonvirgin females, this could reduce female fertility. 

Paper wasp.

Paper wasps capable of behavior that we consider part of logical reasoning

Paper wasps may be much more intelligent than you’d assume.

Paper wasp.

“It’s Dr. Paper Wasp, buddy.”
Image credits Sandeep Handa.

One of the traits that have traditionally been considered a hallmark of human-like mental abilities is transitive interference. Transitive interference (or TI) is the ability to use known relationships to infer unknown relationships. Here’s an example: if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, how do A and C compare? ‘A is greater than C!’ our brains blurt out with a shot of serotonin for getting solving the puzzle.

We used to think that only humans were capable of such high-level mental acrobatics. In the last couple of decades, we’ve instead come to see that isn’t true. A lot of vertebrates, from primates to birds to fish, have proven their ability to handle TI. Invertebrates, however, haven’t.

Until now

“This study adds to a growing body of evidence that the miniature nervous systems of insects do not limit sophisticated behaviors,” said Elizabeth Tibbetts, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“We’re not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem, but they seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships,” she explains. “Our findings suggest that the capacity for complex behavior may be shaped by the social environment in which behaviors are beneficial, rather than being strictly limited by brain size.”

The study Tibbetts led provides the first concrete evidence of TI in an invertebrate animal: the paper wasp (genus Polistes). The only previously-published study on this subject worked with honeybees (genus Apis), which didn’t seem able to perform TI. One explanation the authors of that study considered was that the honeybees’ nervous system is too size-constrained to handle the task. That their processor, if you will, is too small to run the TI app.

Paper wasps have a nervous system roughly comparable to that of the honeybee — around one million neurons in total. However, unlike honeybees, paper wasps are more socially-savvy. They exhibit certain types of social behavior that honeybees do not. That had the team questioning whether or not the paper wasps’ social skills would allow them to succeed where honeybees had failed.

Tibbetts’ team worked with two common species of paper wasps, Polistes dominula and Polistes metricus. They collected paper wasp queens from several locations around Ann Arbor, Michigan, started colonies in the lab, and made these wasps tell between pairs of colors (called premise pairs). They did this by training individual wasps to associate one color in the pair with a mild electric shock.

Later, the insects were presented with novel color pairs. They were able to use TI to pick the safe one of these novel pairs, Tibbetts says.

“I was really surprised how quickly and accurately wasps learned the premise pairs,” said Tibbetts, who has studied the behavior of paper wasps for 20 years.

“I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees,” she said. “But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular color was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations.”

The team believes that different types of cognitive abilities are favored in bees and wasps because they display different social behaviors. While both insects have brains smaller than a grain of rice (with pretty much the same mental oomph) a honeybee colony has a single queen and multiple equally ranked female workers. In contrast, paper wasp colonies have several reproductive females known as foundresses. The foundresses compete with their rivals and form linear dominance hierarchies.

Where a wasp falls in the hierarchy determines how much reproduction, food, and work it receives. TI-like processes could thus help wasps rapidly estimate the social standing of a colony-mate that they are unfamiliar with. In previous studies, Tibbetts and her colleagues showed that paper wasps recognize individuals of their species by variations in their facial markings and that they behave more aggressively toward wasps with unfamiliar faces.

The team notes, however, that this is still a hypothesis. While the present study shows that paper wasps can build and manipulate an implicit hierarchy, it does not pinpoint the precise mechanisms that underpins this ability. Further research is needed to understand exactly why the paper wasps ‘unlocked’ TI.

The paper “Transitive inference in Polistes paper wasps” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.


Bees completely stopped flying during the 2017 total solar eclipse


Credit: Pixabay.

Last year’s total solar eclipse was all the rage around the continental United States. For honeybees, however, the whole experience was rather confusing. A citizen science project that included both researchers and elementary-schoolers, monitored bees during the eerie moments when the moon blocked the sun. The study found that it wasn’t just Americans who took a break, but also the bees, who stopped foraging and just idled around.

Who took the lights out?

The study’s authors, which included more than 400 participants, set up 16 monitoring stations across Oregon, Idaho, and Missouri, on the path of totality during the 2017 eclipse. Each station was fitted with microphones shielded by windscreens in order to minimize noise. Suspended from lanyards, the microphones recorded the buzz of bees as they zig-zagged from lower to flower. The researchers also recorded data on light and temperature.

Before and after the eclipse, the bees were active in phases. However, during the totality itself, the bees completely stopped flying.

“We anticipated, based on the smattering of reports in the literature, that bee activity would drop as light dimmed during the eclipse and would reach a minimum at totality,” said Candace Galen, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri and lead researcher on the study. “But, we had not expected that the change would be so abrupt, that bees would continue flying up until totality and only then stop, completely. It was like ‘lights out’ at summer camp! That surprised us.”

Since the bees tended to fly for a longer duration immediately before and after the totality, the authors of the new study suspect that the sudden darkness may have coaxed the insects to return to their nests. Usually, at night, bees return to their nests and fly more slowly. Just one buzz was recorded during totality in all of the 16 monitoring locations.

Alternatively, the eclipse may have caused the bees to reduce flight speed — so that they might not bump into things or each other.

The researchers could not differentiate between bee species from the recordings alone but observations suggest that the monitored bees were bumblebees (genus Bombus) or honey bees (Apis mellifera).

Scientists have known for a while that animals behave differently, sometimes bizarrely, during eclipses. For instance, orb-weaving spiders destroy their webs during an eclipse.

“The eclipse gave us an opportunity to ask whether the novel environmental context–mid-day, open skies–would alter the bees’ behavioral response to dim light and darkness. As we found, complete darkness elicits the same behavior in bees, regardless of timing or context. And that’s new information about bee cognition,” Galen says.

The next solar eclipse will take place on April 8, 2024. This time, Galen and researchers plan on monitoring bees again to see whether the insects actually head home when the lights go off.

“The total solar eclipse was a complete crowd-pleaser, and it was great fun to hitch bee research to its tidal wave of enthusiasm,” Galen says.

The findings were published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Mushroom with antiviral properties could save the honeybees

Credit: Pixabay.

Since 2006, beekeepers in the United States have lost 30 to 90 percent of their colonies — and they haven’t recovered ever since. The ongoing decline in bee populations, which is experienced all over the world, has been attributed to ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD). This complex phenomenon is the result of many factors, perhaps as many as 61, according to one study. Over a third of our food supply depends on honeybees for pollination, so their loss could have dramatic effects on society and ecosystems at large.

For the past eight years, about 30% of colonies have been lost each winter

Besides pesticide use, habitat loss, climate change, and as most recently suggested, Glyphosate herbicides, scientists say that viruses are also among the prime drivers responsible for CCD. The Varroa mites, for instance, carry the “deformed wing virus”, which belongs to the family of Iflaviridae, so-called RNA viruses. Their genetic material only consists of one ribonucleotide strand, unlike the prevailing double-stranded DNA in mammals. When infecting honeybees, the virus causes the insects to develop deformed, non-functional wings, starving the colony.

A mycologist, however, might have found a way to save the bees from the virus carried by the mites. Paul Stamets is an expert at growing mushrooms and the author of a popular book on the subject. Thirty years ago, he first noticed that bees moved woodchips in his backyard to get closer to the mushrooms’ mycelium. At the time, Stamets thought that the honeybees were looking to extract sugars from the fungi, but it wasn’t until five years ago while researching the antiviral properties of mushrooms for humans that he made a striking connection: the honeybees may have been eating mushrooms to fend off viruses.

Stamets teamed up with researchers at Washington State University (WSU) and together devised a series of experiments in which they added small amounts of mushroom extracts to sugar water. The team exposed 50 bees from 30 different field colonies to the mixture at varying concentrations — and the results were simply stunning. Compared to bees that were fed only sugar water, bee colonies exposed to the mycelium broth experienced a 79-fold decrease in deformed wing virus after 12 days, and up to a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai virus, which is another virus linked to CCD.

The fact that experiments were made in the field, not just in the lab, make the results even more exciting. They suggest that it’s possible to develop a sort antiviral vaccine for bees that could save colonies from CCD.

Stamets has now designed a 3D-printed feeder that dispenses mushroom mycelia extract and hopes that by 2019 it will become widely available to beekeepers.

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports


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.


Bees have false memories too – this might help explain how our own form

Memories aren’t infallible – even for those with photographic memory – so, more often than not, they’ll seem fuzzy. And the older these get, the fuzzier they’re recalled. Mixing names, faces and events in your head can sometimes be embarrassing, but at least we’re not alone. Seems like bees have false memories too, according to a study made by British researchers at Queen Mary University of London. Previously, false memories had been induced in other animals, like mice, but this is the first time natural false memories have been shown to happen. Research like this might help us, in time, understand how false memories are formed and, in a more general sense, how we recall events.



Honeybees and bumblebees rely on scent, taste and colour to find food (nectar), so they map this sensory information for later use. The researchers trained bees (Bombus terrestris) to go after two types of reward-bearing flowers: solid yellow ones and a variety which flashed rings of black and white. They then introduced other varieties of flowers. 

In the first three days the bees preferred the most recently rewarded stimulus. Later on, however, the bees went for a hybrid made of yellow and white concentric circles. Just 34 percent preferred the merged blooms during the first ten trials, but 50 percent did during the last ten. According to the researchers at the QMUL Bee Sensory and Behavioral Lab, this is indicative of false memory formation. Strikingly, this matches a pattern reminiscent of how humans recall false information. Right after training or shortly after reading an article, for instance, people will rather accurately remember what was it all about. Ask them to perform the task two week later and things will get fuzzy. As such, it’s a matter of long term memory storage and retrieval. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a sign of how flexible our memory is.

“There is no question that the ability to extract patterns and commonalities between different events in our environment [is] adaptive,” Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London says in a press release. “Indeed, the ability to memorize the overarching principles of a number of different events might help us respond in new situations. But these abilities might come at the expense of remembering every detail correctly.”

Findings appeared in Current Biology.

A component from scorpion and honeybee venom stops cancer growth

Scorpion toxins may soon be useful as anticancer drugs. Credit: Courtesy of Dipanjan Pan

The difference between a poison and a cure is the dosage – and this could be very well said about this approach. Bio-engineers report that peptides in some venoms bind to cancer cells and block tumor growth and spread and could be effectively used to fight cancer – the only problem is they might also harm healthy cells.

Bioengineer Dipanjan Pan and coworkers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, are now using polymeric nanoparticles to deliver venom toxin directly to cancer cells. The problem is limiting the effect it has to the cancer cells, and avoiding any damage to healthy cells. The researchers inserted a derivative of TsAP-1, a toxin peptide from scorpion venom, into specific spherical nanoparticles, constructing what they call NanoVenim. When they tested it on cancerous tissue in the lab, NanoVenim was 10 times more effective at killing the cancerous cells and spreading their growth than the toxin alone.

They researched a similar procedure with a nanoparticle-encapsulated version of melittin (a toxin from honeybee venom), and the results were even more promising. The toxin had potency against cancer cells, but on the upside, it didn’t do any damage at all to healthy cells.

“We have known for some time that venom toxins have anticancer potential, if only we could deliver them safely and selectively to tumors,” said David Oupicky, codirector of the Center for Drug Delivery & Nanomedicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

However, the trick here is nanotechnology; even a simple nanotechnological delivery method can work wonders (such as increasing the efficiency 10 times). Pan’s idea with scorpion venom injected through nanotechnology  “is new, and the method of incorporation into nanoparticles is fairly new as well,” he added. But it’s perhaps the honeybee venom which shows the most promise:

 “[That it] works against cancer cells but appears not to damage erythrocytes is an important step toward practical application. It will be very interesting to see how the particles behave in vivo.”

Now, having successfully tested the idea on lab tissue, the next step is to conduct animal tests. Pan’s team founded a start-up, VitruVian Biotech which will conduct testings on rats and pigs. However, with so promising results, he believes that they could start human clinical trials in three to five years.

Not just honeybees – wildbees, butterflies and moths are also in trouble

By now, you really should be aware of the honeybee problems that are plaguing populations throughout the world – their numbers are dwindling, and this poses a huge threat not just for the bees themselves, but for humans as well. Now, a new study has shown that it’s not just bees who are in trouble, but also other pollinators, like butterflies and moths.

“Almost 90 percent of the world’s flowering species require insects or other animals for pollination,” said ecologist Laura Burkle of Montana State University. “That’s a lot of plants that need these adorable creatures for reproduction. And if we don’t have those plants, we have a pretty impoverished world.”

Killing pollinators – fast


Via Life on the Balcony

It’s pretty clear that we are ones destroying honeybee populations, and the causes are not natural. Now, things are shown to be even worse, as we are having a similar effect on wild pollinators.

The causes for the decline in wildbee and butterfly numbers are pretty much the same damaging the honey bees – habitat loss and pesticide. The US and China are the main drivers behind this problem, as pesticide use has been harshly regulated in Europe, but still continues unscathed in the US, with the damage extending more and more – now, even to wild pollinators.

The damage done by pesticides is huge, and hard to quantify. As a matter of fact, it’s quite surprising that pollinators are surviving, even as hard as it is.

“It’s amazing we see as many pollinators as we do. Those are the ones who’ve survived this continuous pummeling.” , said biologist Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley

To make things even worse, the destruction of habitat is happening at alarming rates – the ones we usually talk about when referring to the Amazon forest. In the Midwest alone, more than 36,000 square miles of wetlands and prairie—an area larger than Indiana—has been converted to cropland since 2008. Needless to say, this has had an absolutely devastating effect.

The effects of killing wild pollinators

It’s often said that 1 in 3 bites of food you put in your mouth was pollinated – and wild pollinators are responsible for a big chunk of that. It’s estimated that these wild pollinators provide services of about $14.6 billion every year, in the US alone! So we’re not just talking environmental problems, we’re talking about economic problems! We’re talking about the agriculture, starting to have problems bringing the food to the table – and things will only get worse.

Also, human diets aside, pollinators put food in the mouths of many animals – wild and domesticated alike. Also, they are responsible for shaping up the landscapes, flying from flower to flower in an unceasing hum of activity.

“If there was a loss of pollinators,” said USDA entomologist Terry Griswold, “that would have a cascading effect in terms of forage for a good proportion of the biota.”

To put that in common English, the loss of pollinators will affect most animals, even if they don’t rely on pollinated flowers directly. Entire ecosystems will be reshaped or destroyed – something which will be extremely difficult to adapt to.

Scientists warn that we are nearing a tipping point – you can do some damage to the pollinators in an ecosystem, and it will still work out fine, but after one point, things will start to go horribly awry – and it will be almost impossible to fix them. Burkle likens this to an airplane:

“You can use the example of an airplane: Start to undo some rivets and screws, and it’s still going to fly, because there’s still redundancy in the system,” said Burkle. “But at some point it begins to fall apart.”

Solutions exist, but we all have to get involved

The main problem is the lack of governmental involvement in this. As of now, the main costs of protecting pollinators are borne by the farmers. The USDA recently started a pollinator habitat restoration program, which is small, but is a start. Creating (or at the very least maintaining) pollinator friendly habitats is the way to go, but who will bare the costs? The US government doesn’t seem to be interested in this, and they even allow companies to use harmful pesticides. The farmers have limited resources, and are losing ground significantly to big companies. Others have shown that it is possible to obtain competitive high-quality cost effective results using a minimum of pesticides, but again, who should lead the movement?

According to entomologist Art Shapiro of the University of California, Davis, it has to be all of us.

“I would like to see communities get together to have butterfly garden corridors running through them,” Shapiro said. “If you get five households on a city block, you’ve got a corridor. If we’re going to deal with these problems, we need to have everybody taking action,” Black said. “In the past, I worked to get wilderness designated—with salmon and spotted owls and wolves, with old growth and wild rivers. That’s different than what I do now, because anybody can do something for pollinators.”



A photo of a Robobee, a tiny flying robot-bee currently in developement in a project independent of the one currently featured in this piece. (c) Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science

Honeybee artificial brain might help unravel animal cognition

A group of researchers at Universities of Sheffield and Sussex have embarked in a highly ambitious project, in a quest to  accurately develop computer models of a honey bee brain. Findings during actual development and testing itself might help answer some of the most puzzling questions in neuroscience, in a bid to understand how animal cognition works.

The scientists intend on creating an artificial intelligence system for the honey bee, such that a flying autonomous robo-honey bee might sense the world around it, in terms of vision and smell, and act according to its external stimuli, just like the real insect would behave instead of just completing a series of pre-programmed tasks. Tasks the robot will be expected to perform, for example, will include finding the source of particular odours or gases in the same way that a bee can identify particular flowers.

“The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in Artificial Intelligence. So far, researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys, and humans, but actually ‘simpler’ organisms such as social insects have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities,” said Dr James Marshall, leading the £1 million EPSRC1 funded project in Sheffield.

A photo of  a Robobee, a tiny flying robot-bee currently in developement in a project independent of the one currently featured in this piece. (c) Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science

A photo of a Robobee, a tiny flying robot-bee currently in developement in a project independent of the one featured in this piece. (c) Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science

Called “Green Brain”, the project inevitably draws comparison with the more famous IBM-sponsored Blue Brain initiative, which is developing brain modeling technologies using supercomputers with the ultimate goal of producing an accurate model of a human brain. While some of you might not think of Green Brain as ambitious or complex as other artificial intelligence projects, it’s worth considering that it’s moving in uncharted territory.

Green Brain’s researchers anticipate that developing a model of a honey bee brain will offer a more accessible method of driving forward our knowledge of how a brain’s cognitive systems work, leading to advances in understanding animal and human cognition. Also, the project will also likely provide a solid contribution to the development of artificial pollinators, such as those being researched by the National Science Foundation-funded Robobees project, led by Harvard University.

“Because the honey bee brain is smaller and more accessible than any vertebrate brain, we hope to eventually be able to produce an accurate and complete model that we can test within a flying robot,” said Dr. Marshall.

“Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modelling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modelling and computational neuroscience projects,” added Dr. Thomas Nowotny, the leader of the Sussex team.

What’s maybe more important than flying robots though, is understanding the honey bee itself. Honey bees are essential to the global ecosystem, as they pollinate crops and flowers. In recent years, their numbers have alarmingly gone down, and maybe this present research might aid in answering what is causing this bee mass retrieval, although mite infections and pesticides are quite probable causes, and maybe even help boost their numbers somehow. If anything, look for tiny robo-honey bees pollinating 2050’s crops.

source: www.shef.ac.uk.