Primitive Signs of Emotions Spotted in Sugar-Buzzed Bumblebees

science Daily     By Emily Underwood     September 30, 2016

After a treat, insects appeared to have rosier outlooks

BUZZED Bumblebees seem to get a mood boost from sweets, a new study shows.

To human observers, bumblebees sipping nectar from flowers appear cheerful. It turns out that the insects may actually enjoy their work. A new study suggests that bees experience a “happy” buzz after receiving a sugary snack, although it’s probably not the same joy that humans experience chomping on a candy bar.

Scientists can’t ask bees or other animals how they feel. Instead, researchers must look for signs of positive or negative emotions in an animal’s decision making or behavior, says Clint Perry, a neuroethologist at Queen Mary University of London. In one such study, for example, scientists shook bees vigorously in a machine for 60 seconds — hard enough to annoy, but not hard enough to cause injury — and found that stressed bees made more pessimistic decisions while foraging for food.

The new study, published in the Sept. 30 Science, is the first to look for signs of positive bias in bee decision making, Perry says. His team trained 35 bees to navigate a small arena connected to a plastic tunnel. When the tunnel was marked with a blue flower, the bees learned that a tasty vial of sugar water awaited them at its end. When a green flower was present, there was no reward. Once the bees learned the difference, the scientists threw the bees a curveball: Rather than being blue or green, the flower had a confusing blue-green hue.

Faced with the ambiguous blossom, the bees appeared to dither, meandering around for roughly 100 seconds before deciding whether to enter the tunnel. Some didn’t enter at all. But when the scientists gave half the bees a treat — a drop of concentrated sugar water — that group spent just 50 seconds circling the entrance before deciding to check it out. Overall, the two groups flew roughly the same distances at the same speeds, suggesting that the group that had gotten a treat first had not simply experienced a boost in energy from the sugar, but were in a more positive, optimistic state, Perry says.

In a separate experiment, Perry and colleagues simulated a spider attack on the bees by engineering a tiny arm that darted out and immobilized them with a sponge. Sugar-free bees took about 50 seconds longer than treated bees to resume foraging after the harrowing encounter.

The researchers then applied a solution to the bees’ thoraxes that blocked the action of dopamine, one of several chemicals that transmit rewarding signals in the insect brain. With dopamine blocked, the effects of the sugar treat disappeared, further suggesting that a change in mood, and not just increased energy, was responsible for the bees’ behavior.

The results provide the first evidence for positive, emotion-like states in bees, says Ralph Adolphs, a neuroscientist at Caltech. Yet he suspects that the metabolic effects of sugar did influence the bees’ behavior.

Geraldine Wright, a neuroethologist at Newcastle University in England, shares that concern. “The data reported in the paper doesn’t quite convince me that eating sucrose didn’t change how they behaved, even though they say it didn’t affect flight time or speed of flight,” she says. “I would be very cautious in interpreting the responses of bees in this assay as a positive emotional state.”

Colony Development Part 1

BEE CULTURE   By Larry Connor    September 19, 2015

Importance of Knowing Developmental Rates

by Larry Connor

Before obtaining the first bee colony, the future sustainable apiculturist must master key aspects of bee biology. Beekeepers must know the basic biological developmental rates of the three kinds of bees. It is not something that should be dismissed or ignored. Using the animal husbandry example, a beekeeper should know the developmental time of bees just like a cattle or dog breeder must know the developmental time and growth milestones of a calf or pup. Here are some common examples that I have seen happen with many new and less-experienced beekeepers:

There is no open brood. I think I lost my queen!

Events within the beehive take a set period of time, yet many beekeepers are in a big hurry for these things to happen and, as a result, ignore biology. If a European colony replaces a queen, it takes time for the new queen to develop, reach mating age, mate and then start laying eggs. Here’s a breakdown:

Queen development from egg to emerging……..16 days
Days to reach mating age…………………..7 days (or longer)
Days to mate……………………………..2 days (or longer)
Days to develop eggs after mating…………..3 days
TOTAL…………………………………..28 days

That is four weeks from future queen egg to her first worker egg! Some untrained beekeepers often expect to see new brood in two or three weeks as if Mother Nature will speed development just for them. Convinced the queen is gone, these beekeepers often buy another queen and really confuse both themselves and the bees by trying to introduce a queen to a colony that already has a queen in development! That is both wasteful and expensive, and it is poor animal husbandry.

My queen must be dead because I cannot see any eggs!

Bee eggs are small, and many beekeepers will carefully inspect a frame of brood on a dark day or without a bright light (the sun over the shoulder is best) and declare that the frame does not have any eggs or young larvae. When I take the frame and look, the frame is often filled with eggs and newly hatched larvae. Yes, the young larvae will appear nearly transparent, especially on light colored beeswax or plastic foundation. I often suggest these untrained folks get a flashlight and a hand lens to make these important inspections. While this is not really biology of the bee, it is about the biology of the beekeeper who cannot see. Schedule an eye exam!

I’ve had a queen in the hive for five weeks now, there is open and sealed brood in the frames, but the colony is losing bees. What is happening?

Many things can cause a colony to go into population decline, but five weeks is a critical time for bee populations if you let bees raise their own queen. If you add the 21 days it takes for new worker bees to grow from egg to emergence, you still have to add the time it took the queen to start laying, or 28 days.
Adding 21 and 28 days gives you seven weeks. It takes a long time for a colony to raise a new queen from the accidental death of the queen or when a beekeeper makes a walk-away split. Seven weeks is a very long time for a colony to be without emerging bees in the hive, especially if it did not have much sealed brood when it was originally set up or made queenless. Within three to five weeks you will notice that the population of adult bees is declining unless you intentionally selected or added frames of sealed and emerging brood specifically to boost the bee population. 

Why beekeepers do not see eggs and larvae. This is a black plastic frame of worker comb. Much of the new wax has been pulled off to reveal the eggs and larvae. The larvae floating on a bed of royal jelly are the ‘easiest’ to see. This is why beekeepers need to carry a flashlight and a hand lens in the apiary.

I keep bees in South Florida and I have trouble keeping the colonies from mating with Africanized bees. What can I do?

Researchers have shown that African queens develop about two days faster than European bees, while the hybrid Africanized bees develop one day faster than European queens. What does that mean to the beekeeper?

Because African queens emerge faster than European queens, your first concerns for producing queens in area with African genes is when you emerge queen cells in an incubator or cell finisher. Just one African queen cell will produce a virgin emerging a day or two early and the complete destruction of all the remaining cells. if you put queen cells you found on frames of brood into a new nucleus increase hive, you will find that the African queens will be preferentially favored.

Second, if you mate your queens in an area where both African and European drones are present, several studies have shown that the European queen is more likely to mate with European drones – they fly longer hours and are produced in larger numbers.

The beekeeper trying to mate queens in an area with African colonies need to develop a European-drone saturation program or develop an off-season mating program. Otherwise, they need to find an area that is free of the African bee and mate their queens to European drones at that location.
Here is a summary of the developmental time of the workers, drones and queens:


Most of the bees in a colony are workers. All worker bees are female but in a different caste than the queen. They do all the work in the hive and gather all the food (pollen and nectar) and water that the bees need to survive. Workers also collect resin from trees to coat the inside of the hive – we call this propolis. They are unable to mate with drones, the male bees and they do not attempt to make mating flights. They have very small reproductive structures and are only able to produce eggs in the absence of a queen bee’s pheromone. These eggs are unfertilized and will only become male bees.

Worker honey bees control the queen’s behavior and replacement as well as the number and age distribution of the drones in a hive. Unfertilized eggs are haploid, having just one set of chromosomes. In Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), these develop into males. Worker-produced drones may or may not be significant in terms of passing on genetic information, depending on which scientist you ask. Is there a genetic benefit of the haploid-diploid sex determination system if a worker bee produces sons that contribute to the genetic composition of future colonies?

Worker Development

In whole days, the intervals of metamorphic honey bee worker development follow a mathematical progression: three days as an egg, six days as a larva and 12 days in the sealed cell. Remember this simple relationship: 3+6+12 equals 21 days. Like many things in the hive, these are averages, and the timing is not in exact 24-hour measurements. Temperature and nutrition apparently impact development rates.

Queen cells in an incubator. Genetic differences in queen development time can produce an early emerging queen capable of destroying all these cells in a matter of hours.

The Egg

After first inserting her head into a cell to determine its size, the queen deposits one worker egg. As she positions her body into the cell, she releases some of the sperm stored in her spermatheca to accomplish fertilization. Queens may deposit both fertilized and unfertilized eggs, both workers and drones in worker cells, depending on the size of the cells. All worker eggs are fertilized, and a good queen will produce a pattern of 95% or more worker cells and a few missed cells where diploid drone eggs are deposited (they are removed soon after hatching). This is the time period for the union of the sperm and egg with the resulting embryo feeding on the yolk in the egg. There is rapid growth of the embryonic bee during this short three-day period. Eggs are held vertically, head down, by a small amount of cement at the bottom of the egg. At the end of three days, the outer egg shell, called the chorion, softens as it is reabsorbed into the body. The egg flattens onto the bottom of the cell and becomes the larva.

The Larva

Once the larva hatches, it immediately enters a period of continuous feeding and extremely rapid growth. In six days the bee grows from a tiny egg to a large larva. Nurse bees feed the larva many times per hour and provide a surplus of royal jelly at the bottom of the cell for the first 48-50 hours. This is the same food as fed to a queen bee larva throughout her larval period. After this initial feeding, the diet of the larva changes to a more complex diet that inhibits the formation of queen characteristics and promotes the formation of worker features. The special diet, called worker jelly, contains additional carbohydrates and lipid molecules that turn characteristics of worker development on and turn characteristics of the queen caste off. The worker larva floats on a bed of royal jelly.
When raising queen bees, this is the start of the perfect time to remove larvae and put her into a queen cup. The larva floats on the bed of royal jelly and molts at least four times before the final molt to become the pupa. The molting skin is extremely thin and hard to detect. During the sixth day, the bees place a beeswax ‘cap’ on the cell, even though the larva inside has not completed the larval developmental phase. At this time, the larval body changes into an intermediate prepupal form, which is intermediate between the larva and the pupal stage.

Bees pass through a four stage metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupae and adult. These two are the larva and pupae (with eyes darkening, the purple eye stage).

The Pupa

The larva spins a thin brown silk cocoon with special glands located in the head. Then, she molts the final time to become the pupa, with characteristics in the form of the bee but without wing development and integument pigmentation. The first parts of the bee’s external body to change color are the two compound eyes, first to pink and then to purple. Internally, the body is becoming more differentiated, with the formation of adult bee organs, like the honey stomach, developing out of the simpler larval digestive tract. Just how many changes take place during the ‘quiet’ or ‘resting’ phase of development is not known, but it is both large and essential to the adult bee’s many roles in the hive.

The Emerging Individual

Twenty-one days after the queen has deposited a tiny egg in the cell, the worker bee emerges, soft of body, unable to sting and covered with body hairs that have not yet dried in the atmosphere of the hive. Some refer to emergence as ‘hatching’, but we restrict the term hatching to refer to the egg-to-larval transformation, and the term ‘emergence’ for the worker bees cutting the the protective silk capping off her cell and walking, ready to begin her initial adult bee duties. These callow bees are responsive to the queen bee and quickly learn her odors which helps them in various parts of their adult life.

Differences in Developmental Rates

European races of honey bees follow a similar developmental pattern. When compared to African honey bees, the European queen and worker bee require additional time for development than the same castes in the African bees.

European vs. African Honey Bee Developmental Time from Egg to Adult

From Ellis, J., University of Florida and A. Ellis, Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Commercial Services. FDACS.DPI|EDIS. Accessed online 9 Aug. 2015.

Queen…16 days
Worker…21 days
Drone…24 days

Queen…14 days
Worker…19-20 days
Drone…24 days

Division of Labor

The Nurse Bee (In the Brood Nest)
These young bees quickly assume duties. No other bee provides instruction or hints at the job ahead. There is no mentoring or internship.

Cell cleaning – Newly emerged bees clean the cells of newly emerged cells; they remove remaining royal jelly, larval fecal materials and trim the capping of the cell. They also remove any lingering varroa mites still in development and destroy them. Once the cell is clean, I suspect they either remove any objectionable odor that might repel the queen, or they coat the empty cell with a special odor or pheromone that stimulates the queen bee to deposit a new egg into the cell, thus starting the brood production cycle all over again.

The developing brood is being fed by a nurse bee, a member of house bees that has not yet started to fly. R. Williamson photo.

Feeding brood – Newly emerged bees quickly feed themselves pollen and nectar and are fed by other worker bees as part of the ‘community stomach’ of the hive, which includes food and chemical components collected from the queen. The feeding process stimulates the digestive tract of the bee to process the food and convert the proteins and carbohydrates into royal jelly. When beekeepers feed colonies of bees, only a small percentage of the bees collect food from the feeder device, but all the bees in the colony benefit from the feeding due to food-sharing behavior.
Royal jelly production – Each worker bee undergoes a period of abundant royal jelly production when the season and food supply allows. Most of the year this feeding is almost immediately after food intake, but in the Fall and early Winter, the royal jelly production is delayed as the colony takes a break in brood rearing. The appearance of the first larvae in January (in the northern hemisphere) stimulates royal jelly secretion by select nurse bees.

Brood regulators – It appears that these young bees determine the amount of royal jelly to produce, and, thus, the amount of brood to rear, based on stimulation by the increasing day length as well as the food budget of the hive. Here the ‘community stomach’ controls population growth. Bees with proper nutrients in their body cells and their digestive tract produce more royal jelly only when there is an abundance of food stored in both the combs and coming into the hive from foragers that find early season food. Quality food reserves in the body cells of over-wintering nurse bees are essential for the care and feeding of a healthy brood cycle early in the season. If in the prior season the colony had poor food reserves, it was exposed to parasitic mites and diseases, or the colony was undergoing any other stress, then the nurse bees are less fit for brood rearing. It is not the temperature outside the hive that determines the amount of brood that a colony produces, but the bee population and nutritional status of the nurse bees. This relationship makes these young bees critical to starting the new season properly.

Queen attendants – Nurse bees also feed and care for the queen. They regulate the amount of food she receives and they themselves are subject to complex factors that include the food reserves, the nutritional composition of the ‘community stomach’ and the population of young bees inside the hive. Part of this network is the feedback the nurse bees provide to the queen by returning modified queen substance to the queen – she then responds to her own chemical signals (pheromones and hormones). The queen retinue of attendants constantly changes. Look for queens with large retinues, at least ten and perhaps over a dozen worker bees, while resting. Queens with small retinues often do poorly in the hive.

How Honey Bees Telescope Their Abdomen

Science Daily  Entomological Society of America  July 25, 2016

Honey bees are able to wiggle their abdomens in a variety of ways. Now new research shows how they are able to do it. Specialized membranes that connect a honey bee's abdominal segments are thicker on the top of the abdomen than on the bottom, report the scientists. This asymmetry allows the segments to lengthen on top and contract on the bottom, resulting in the unidirectional curling the researchers observed in the bees they filmed.

Honey bees are able to wiggle their abdomens in a variety of ways. Now new research published in the Journal of Insect Science shows how they are able to do it.

In 2015, a team of researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing used a high-speed camera to observe how honey bees curl their abdomens while in flight and under restraint, confirming that bees can manipulate the shape of their abdomens, but only in one direction -- down, toward the bee's underside.

Now the same team has identified the mechanism behind that movement. Specialized membranes that connect a honey bee's abdominal segments are thicker on the top of the abdomen than on the bottom, allowing curling in just one direction.

Honey bee abdomens contain up to nine overlapping segments that are similar to little armored plates. A thin, flexible layer of cells called the folded intersegmental membrane (FIM) connects the tough outer plates, allowing each concentric segment not just to attach to its neighbor, but to slide into the next one. The authors call this movement "telescoping."

"Our research on the ultrastructure of the FIM is of great significance to reveal the bending and flexing motion mechanism of the honey bee abdomen," said Professor Shaoze Yan, one of the co-authors. "During nectar feeding, a honey bee's abdomen does high-frequency respiratory exercises and assists the suction behavior of mouthparts to improve the intake efficiency."

In this experiment, the researchers looked at forager honey bees using the same combination of high-speed videography and scanning electron microscopy as they did in 2015. The engineers recorded the abdominal wiggling of live honey bees and the internal shapes of dissected bee abdomens. The flying videos were shot at 500 frames per second, and the dissected abdomens were imaged in thin slices.

The microscopy showed that the membranes along the top of the honey bee's abdomen are two times thicker than those on the bottom. This asymmetry allows the segments to lengthen on top and contract on the bottom, resulting in the unidirectional curling the researchers observed in the bees they filmed.

It's a design that the paper's authors suggest is ripe for exploration by more engineers, perhaps for use in aircraft design or other applications.


Story Source: Entomological Society of America.  

  1. Jieliang Zhao, Shaoze Yan, Jianing Wu. Critical Structure for Telescopic Movement of Honeybee (Insecta: Apidae) Abdomen: Folded Intersegmental MembraneThe Journal of Insect Science, July 2016 DOI:10.1093/jisesa/iew049

Don't Take Honeybees For Granted!

Chatham Daily News    By Kim Cooper    June 29, 2016

You may feel that the work you do is sometimes taken for granted, but the work of the honeybee is really taken for granted.

We all know honeybees gather nectar to produce honey, but they perform another vital function — pollination of agricultural crops, home gardens, and orchards.

As bees travel in search of nectar, they transfer pollen from plant to plant. This fertilizes the plants and enables them to bear fruit.

Approximately 30% of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants and the honeybee is responsible for 80% of this pollination. That is amazing!

Bees collect pollen and nectar. Pollen is a very high-protein food for bees. Plants give up some pollen in exchange for the bees' services in transferring pollen from other plants. Nectar is sucked up through the bee’s proboscis, mixed with enzymes in the stomach, and carried back to the hive, where it is stored in wax cells and evaporated into honey.

Some bees tend to stay with a specific kind of flower. For example, a honeybee that visits an apple blossom on its first flight, will usually visit only apple blossoms until there are no more, and then they would change to another flower.

Did you know the honeybee is the only insect in the world that makes food for humans?

So, if you happen to see honeybees during a summer outing, don’t be so hard on them. They are not out to get you. Their stinger is simply a defense mechanism. Their job is to get nectar and spread pollen. They are just doing their job.

We do have a number of local honey operations where you can purchase honey products. They are: Camden Meadows in Dresden (519-683-2033); Mike Dodok Apiaries in Chatham (519-351-8338); and Shiloh Homestead in Muirkirk (519-678-3747). You can also purchase locally grown honey at many of our farm markets and stores.

Why buy local honey? Some say local honey will cure your seasonal allergies, and others say it's just plain good. Whether you want to reduce your carbon footprint or support local agriculture, buying honey that's made by bees in your own area is a good thing to do.

But there's another reason you should purchase locally made honey — your own safety.

International honey launderers sometimes ship contaminated honey from China to the U.S., using intermediaries to falsify shipping labels and documents. The honey you purchase in your grocery chain might be labeled as a product of Australia, Thailand, or India, but there's a good chance it came from China. Barrels of honey travel from China to one of several other countries, where they are relabeled and reshipped to North America to be distributed by packing companies unaware of the scheme.

That’s even more reason to support our bee sector by buying local honey, which is delicious and good for you.

Think about this – The Lord is our refuge and strength, and a very present help in times of trouble.

Just some bee-eautiful food for thought.

Remember that here in Chatham-Kent ‘We Grow for the World’. Check out our community’s agricultural website at:

Flight Guidance Mechanisms of Honey Bee Swarms: How They Get Where They Are Going

Bee Culture Magazine    By Tom Seeley and Ann Chilcott    May 15, 2015

Kirk Visscher, left and Tom Seeley in 2006, watching a test swarm move into a bait hive on appledore Island, in the State of Maine. (photo by Peter EssickAnyone who observes a swarm of bees launch into flight and move off to its new home is presented with a mind-boggling puzzle: how does this school-bus sized cloud of some 10,000 insects manage to fly straight to its new dwelling place? Its flight path may extend for several miles and traverse fields and forest, hilltops and valleys, and even swamps and lakes. What is most amazing is the precision of the flight guidance, for the swarm is able to steer itself to one special point in the landscape, e.g. a specific knothole in one particular tree in a certain corner of a forest. And as the swarm closes in on its destination, it gradually reduces its flight speed so that it stops precisely at the “front door” of its new home. The mystery of how the thousands of bees in a swarm accomplish this magnificent feat of precisely oriented group flight has been carefully probed in recent years using sophisticated radar tracking, video recording, and image processing technologies. In this article, we will review the main findings of these investigations.

First, let’s define the problem a bit more precisely...

Read more:

6 Things You Didn't Know About Queen Bees

meinhoney   By Hillary   January 4, 2016

As the sole bee in her caste, the queen bee is an illustrious member of the beehive. She is not only unique among her colony’s population, she is vital to maintaining that population. A queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day! Although egg laying is her main gig, the queen has many other qualities that may surprise you. Read on to find out more about this all-important bee.

Read more:

The Behavioural Ecology of Swarming in Honey Bees

National Honey Show   Published January 6, 2016
A lecture given by Juliana Rangel at the 2015 National Honey Show entitled "The Behavioural Ecology of Swarming in Honey Bees". The National Honey Show gratefully acknowledge the Nineveh Charitable Trust for their support and the sponsorship by Maisemore Apiaries Ltd.

How Collective Intelligence Helps Organizations Move Past Hierachical Leader Structures

TNW News Insider   By Louis Rosenberg   December 28, 2015 

Source: Louis Masai

Conventional wisdom tells us that organizations run best when critical decisions are made by a strong and capable CEO.

This is true even if it means calling upon a temporary leader until a permanent replacement can be found (as we saw with Twitter’s recent scramble to bring on Jack Dorsey).

Of course, this begs the question – are there alternatives to top-down decision-making that can achieve better outcomes?

I’m not suggesting we do away with hierarchical leadership structures, but if there are ways for companies to make smarter decisions, it’s worth understanding them and exploring if new technologies can help us implement such methods.

To research this issue, I looked to nature and was inspired by the remarkable decision-making abilities of honeybees.

Like an organization facing bankruptcy or a desperate round of financing, bee colonies face a life-or-death decision every year – selecting a new hive location.

From hollow trees to abandoned sheds, a colony will consider dozens of candidate sites over a 30 square mile area, evaluating each with respect to dozens of competing criteria.  Does it have sufficient ventilation?  Is it safe from predators?  Is it large enough to store honey for winter?

It’s a highly complex decision with many tradeoffs and a misstep means death to the colony. This is a decision even a seasoned CEO would not want to face.

Remarkably, honeybees make optimal decisions.

As revealed by the painstaking research of Thomas Seeley at Cornell University, honeybees select the very best site at least 80 percent of the time.

You might assume that means each colony has a strong leader – “a Queen bee” that weighs all the competing factors, from the volume required for honey storage to the complexities of seasonal temperature control, but you’d be wrong. The Queen does not participate in any of the decisions that govern the colony.

So, who makes this critical decision about where the colony should move?  Nobody does.  Or, more specifically – everybody does.

That’s because individual honeybees lack the mental capacity to make a decision this complex and nuanced.  But, when they pool the knowledge and experience of their most senior scout bees, they evoke a “Collective Intelligence” that is not only able to make the decision, it finds the optimal solution.

In other words, by working together as a unified system, the organization (i.e., the bee colony) is able to amplify its intelligence well beyond the capacity of any individual member of the group.  And they do this with no bosses or workers.  No hierarchy at all. 

Louis Masai

In fact, it’s so exciting it’s been the focus of my own research efforts for the last few years – exploring if networked teams can pool their knowledge, opinions, and insights to forge a unified Collective Intelligence that can think smarter together.

So, can we get smarter by pooling our knowledge, insights, and opinions?

Yes, researchers are recognizing the power that connected groups can unleash.

At the simplest level, we can pool our intelligence by casting votes and taking the average.

Often called “the Wisdom of Crowds”, research shows that the average estimate from a large group is almost always more accurate than the estimates given by the vast majority of individuals. The problem is, simple votes are highly sensitive to social biases that can greatly distort the outcome.

For example, recent research shows that if you poll a team in a hierarchical organization, members are often influenced by what they think their boss wants to hear or what they think the group already believes.  Thus, instead of insights being combined and strengthened across an organization, decisions often get distorted as they go the management chain.

Even a relatively flat organization can have barriers to unleashing their Collective Intelligence.

These groups can be thought of as “herds” because they function the way natural herds do – a single individual darts in one direction and the rest of the group follows.

This tendency toward “herding” is exacerbated by social media and other modern technologies. We euphemistically call it “trending” or “going viral” but often it’s just a random impulse gone astray, amplifying noise rather than harnessing intelligence.

In fact, a brilliant study out of MIT, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and NYU shows that if you randomly assign the first vote in an up-voting system similar to Reddit, that single first opinion will influence the final result by 25 percent, even if thousands of votes follow.

So, what would a decision-making process look like if there were no leaders and no followers, but a balanced structure that allowed the group to solve a problem together and find the optimal solution?

For one, if everyone in an organization had an equal voice, it could resolve many of the current gender inequality issues in the workplace, which are quickly becoming a monumental crisis.

Other forms of discrimination – intentional or not – could be avoided as well.

But beyond that, could we boost our overall intelligence, making decisions that exceed the ability of any of the team members?

I believe we can, although we need to look beyond the simple votes and polls that have been the mainstay of Collective Intelligence efforts, and employ new methods and technologies.

One path is to refer back to those amazing honeybees. They don’t cast votes, they form systems – “swarms” – that use feedback loops to combine their input in real-time and converge on optimal solutions together. But can organizations make decisions that way?


Referred to as Human Swarming, teams can be connected by specialized networking software that allow them to form closed-loop systems and tackle problems as a unified intelligence.

In a recent study that I was involved in, groups predicted the winners of the 2015 Oscars by working together in online swarms and greatly out-performed standard votes and polls.

All in all, I’m optimistic that emerging technologies will make us better and better at harnessing the Collective Intelligence of organizations. This will allow companies to leverage the combined brainpower of teams by merging diverse ideas and opinions, insights and intuition.

This could lead to smarter decisions and more inclusive strategies.

Of course, using Collective Intelligence to guide decisions doesn’t mean leadership becomes less important, as there are many ways to be a good leader. It will just put more weight on other leadership qualities – like offering vision and encouragement, with passion and inclusion.

Image credit:@louismasai

Angry Bees Are Easily Distracted By Food, Study Finds

The Washington Post    By Rachael Feltman   December 23, 2015

You know those Snickers commercials about how easy it is to get angry when you're in need of a snack? 

Well, scientists haven't exactly shown that honey bees get "hangry," but the word certainly comes to mind when reading a new study on bee aggression. In the study, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers led by Martin Giurfa at the University of Toulouse and Judith Reinhard of the University of Queensland found that honey bees put on the war path were quite easily put off it by the scent of food.

When a guard bee senses a predator using visual cues like color and movement, it sends out pheromones -- chemicals that illicit an unconscious, automatic physical response in other members of the same species -- to put soldier bees inside the nest on high alert. This puts the bees into kamikaze mode, since any stinging attack leaves the species Apis mellifera sans several internal organs. At least 40 chemical compounds have been found in the pheromone cocktail that calls honey bees to war, but the main component, isoamyl acetate, is enough on its own to make a soldier bee ready to die for the cause.

Previous research has shown that bees and other insects can sometimes get confused by exposure to more than one kind of pheromone. But researchers wanted to see whether the scent chemicals produced by flowers might have any effect.

First, they had to make some honey bees angry, which they did by placing them in an "arena" with an annoying moving target:

Two bees are placed into a container with a moving target and are unaffected by the movement until one of the bees strikes. (Morgan Nouvian (CRCA – QBI)

Two bees are placed into a container with a moving target and an alarm pheromone. The reaction to the sting alarm pheromone can be extremely fast, as evidenced by this pair of bees attacking the moving dummy within seconds of their introduction inside the test arena. (Morgan Nouvian (CRCA – QBI))

But when flowery scents like lavender were added, the bees chilled out. It wasn't simply a question of masking one scent with another -- some food-related scents, like citrus, had no effect -- but the compounds linalool and 2-phenylethanol, along with the scent of lavender (a mix of linalool and other chemicals) seemed to block the aggressive response to the alarm hormone.

Since stinging is such a nasty business, it's not surprising that bees might be hardwired to avoid it in favor of accessing available food for the hive. But the bees didn't have to rely on memories of previously foraged snacks in order to decide what food trumped fighting. Even newly emerged bees, who had never foraged and therefore had no experiential preference for particular flowery smells, were calmed by the lavender-related scents.

The researchers told Live Science that any calming effect of lavender on bees is probably unrelated to the anecdotal calming effect it has on humans. Lavender might be a pleasant, calming scent for a human bubble bath, but for a bee it's like the scent of a juicy burger (if that burger sent out chemical signals that literally drew your body toward it).

But that doesn't mean that humans can't benefit from the study.

"We certainly see great potential for applications to beekeeping," first author Morgane Nouvian, a graduate student at both the University of Queensland and the University of Toulouse, told Live Science. "Developing a product based on our results — for example a scented hand spray [or] cream, or an odor-releasing device to place at the hive entrance — could certainly help reduce the number of bees stinging while [beekeepers are] handling the hives. This method would be a great alternative to the current use of smoke and repellents, because we would be tricking the bees with something that they actually 'like,' and it would thus likely be less stressful for them."

Since constant exposure to venom actually makes beekeepers more likely to become allergic to it than the general population, a product like that would be pretty sweet.

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The Navigational Skills of a Honey Bee

BBC iWonder   Presented by Professor Adam Hart Biologist and broadcaster

We are all familiar with the satellite navigation systems found in modern cars and smartphones. It’s modern technology that we program in a location and get given directions and distances until we reach our final destination. Yet the humble foraging honey bee does all this many times every single day in its daily quest to find the perfect flower to tap for nectar and pollen.

But if that wasn’t miraculous enough, a bee can pass on the exact location of the perfect flower to its colleagues, so they can share in the bounty. Its secret is not using circuit boards and processors it’s the angle of the sun, counting landmarks and electrical fields.

So suggesting that a bee could be as smart as your modern satellite navigation system is not as daft as it may seem.

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Wimps or Warriors? Honey Bee Larvae Absorb the Social Culture of the Hive, Study Finds

 Science Daily   Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign    October 29, 2015

Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them. The researchers don't yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. Credit: © gertrudda / Fotolia

Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports.

"We are interested in the general issue of how social information gets under the skin, and we decided to take a chance and ask about very young bees that are weeks away from adulthood," said University of Illinois entomology professor and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson, who led the research with postdoctoral researcher Clare Rittschof and Pennsylvania State University professor Christina Grozinger.

"In a previous study, we cross-fostered adult bees from gentle colonies into more aggressive colonies and vice versa, and then we measured their brain gene expression," Robinson said. "We found that the bees had a complex pattern of gene expression, partly influenced by their own personal genetic identity and partly influenced by the environment of the colony they were living in. This led us to wonder when they become so sensitive to their social environment."

In the new study, the researchers again cross-fostered bees, but this time as larvae in order to manipulate the bees' early life experiences. The larvae were from a variety of queens, with sister larvae divided between high- and low-aggression colonies.

The larvae were removed from their foster hives and put into a neutral laboratory environment one day before they emerged as adults. The researchers tested their aggressiveness by exposing them to an intruder bee.

They were surprised to see that the bees retained the social information they had acquired as larvae. Those raised in aggressive colonies were 10 to 15 percent more aggressive than those raised in the gentler colonies.

"Even sisters born of the same queen but reared in different colonies differed in aggression, demonstrating the potency of this environmental effect," Robinson said.

The finding was surprising in part because bee larvae undergo metamorphosis, which radically changes the structure of their bodies and brains.

"It's hard to imagine what elements of the brain are influenced during the larval period that then survive the massive reorganization of the brain to bias behavior in this way," Robinson said.

The aggressive honey bees also had more robust immune responses than their gentler counterparts, the team found.

"We challenged them with pesticides and found that the aggressive bees were more resistant to pesticide," Grozinger said. "That's surprising considering what we know from vertebrates, where stress in early life leads to a diminishment of resilience. With the bees, we saw an increase in resilience."

This finding also suggests that the effects of the social environment on young bees could extend beyond brain function and behavior, Robinson said.

The researchers don't yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. They tested whether the bees differed in size, which would suggest that they had been fed differently, but found no size differences between aggressive and gentle bees.

"Adult honey bees are well known for their sociality, their communication skills and their ability to adjust their behavior in response to the needs of the hive," Rittschof said.

"In mammals, including humans, the effects of early life social interactions often persist throughout adulthood despite additional social experiences," she said. "A similar pattern in honey bees has broad implications for our understanding of social behavior within the hive and in comparison with other species." 

The Cocktail Queen Bees Use To Disease-Proof Their Babies

Healthy Pets  BY Dr. Becker September 29, 2015

Honeybees are amazing creatures of the insect world, helping to pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops. Bees transfer pollen from plant to plant, which allows the plants to make seeds and reproduce. Without bees, many of the foods we love – from citrus fruits and broccoli to almonds and cantaloupe – would cease to exist. Not to mention raw honey…

Yet, their impressive contribution to the world's food supply is only oneof their many points of intrigue. If you could peek inside a honeybee hive, you'd see a highly organized society with each bee taking on a very specific role for the overall good of the hive.

The queen bee (there is only one per hive) also has the important job of transferring immunity to all of her babies, and a new study uncovered just how this remarkable feat is accomplished.

How Queen Bees 'Vaccinate' Their Babies 

Research published in PLOS Pathogens found that queen bees inoculate all of their young via a process that begins with eating.1 The queen bee spends most of her life inside the hive, being brought meals by worker bees.

She eats a substance known as royal jelly, which is created by digested pollen and nectar the worker bees gather each day. But with the pollen and nectar, the queen also receives exposure to bacteria and pathogens in the worker bees' environment.

When the queen bee ingests this mixture, she digests the bacteria and stores them in an organ similar to the liver (called the "fat body"). The bacteria are then bound to a protein called vitellogenin and carried via the bloodstream to developing eggs. The babies are therefore inoculated before they're born and enter the world already immune to diseases present in their environment.2

The researchers are hopeful their discovery may help them provide protection to bees against diseases known to destroy hives. They hope to replicate the natural process using a "cocktail the bees would eat." Study co-author Gro Amdam of Arizona State University told Discovery News:3

"Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement. It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans."

Unfortunately, bees aren't only under attack from bacteria and viruses but also from human activities, including pesticide use. Discovery News further reported:4

"During the past six decades alone, managed honeybee colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million today."

The Fascinating Caste System In A Beehive

The queen bee represents just one member of the hive, which may number close to 80,000 depending on the season. Worker bees represent the bulk of the hive, and they are all female (although they're sexually immature and not able to reproduce).

While the queen bee may live for several years, a worker bee lives for about six weeks in the summer or up to nine months in the winter. Each takes on a series of "chores" in its lifetime. According to the Backyard Beekeepers Association:5

"The worker bees sequentially take on a series of specific chores during their lifetime: housekeeper; nursemaid; construction worker; grocer; undertaker; guard; and finally, after 21 days they become a forager collecting pollen and nectar.

For worker bees, it takes 21 days from egg to emergence. The worker bee has a barbed stinger that results in her death following stinging, therefore, she can only sting once."

Each hive also has 300 to 3,000 drone bees, which are male bees kept for the purpose of mating with the queen. She only mates once (with several drone bees) and then is fertile for life, laying up to 2,000 eggs per day. If the queen bee dies, the worker bees will choose a new young female to take her place, raising her by feeding her royal jelly. National Geographic reported:6

"This elixir enables the worker to develop into a fertile queen. Queens also regulate the hive's activities by producing chemicals that guide the behavior of the other bees."

While the male drone bees have no stinger, they have a barbed sex organ and will die after mating. The male bees are also expelled from the hive in the autumn, as they're only needed for mating during the summer.7

Honeybees Are At Risk, Here's How You Can Help

Since 2006, US beekeepers have lost a striking 29.6 percent of their honeybee colonies annually due to a disease dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). The condition causes bees to become disoriented, leaving their hives, and never returning.

Hives across the country have been decimated, and while there's still no definitive cause, pesticides, viruses, mites, fungi, and antibiotics may play a role.

The widespread use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, appears to be particularly damaging to bees, and last year a Harvard study concluded,"Neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD" in previously healthy honeybee hives.

It's also been suggested that CCD may weaken bees' immunity, leaving them vulnerable to other infections or parasites. If you'd like to help bees in your area, consider planting a bee-friendly garden. The Honeybee Conservancy recommends:8

  • Replacing part of your lawn with flowering plants
  • Selecting single flower tops, such as daisies and marigolds, which produce more nectar and are easier to access than double flower tops (such as double impatiens
  • Planting at least three different types of flowers so you have a longer bloom time. For instance:

    Crocus, hyacinth, borage, calendula, and wild lilac for spring blooms.
    Bee balm, cosmos, echinacea, snapdragons, foxglove, and hosta for the summer.
    Zinnias, sedum, asters, witch hazel, and goldenrod are late bloomers for fall.

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Robber Bees And What To Do To Protect Your Hives

Bee-Craft Bee-Kids Club   August 6, 2015

We were just talking about Robber Bees at our recent LACBA meeting. Here's some more info: 

Robber bees!
If you suspect robbing by other bees, you must act fast to put a stop to it or you are likely to lose the colony being robbed. Robbing bees will clean up every last drop of honey. Fighting will kill many bees and, once the hive is overpowered, wasps will move in and kill any remaining bees and brood. Robbing is most common during a nectar dearth and the robbed colonies are likely to be those that are small and weak.

How to tell the difference between normal hive activity and a robbing situation?

1. Robbing bees do not fly straight to the entrance opening, they approach the hive flying from side to side in a zig zag pattern. Also, they appear light, not weighed down with a nectar load!

2. There may be fighting at the entrance and evidence of aggressive behaviour.

3. Robber bees leave the hive heavily laden, unlike bees setting off to forage and tend to climb up the front of the hive before taking off. Once they’re airborne, there tends to be a dip in their flight path.

How to stop robbing - 
1. Reduce the size of the entrance to the width of a single bee. If the weather is hot, use grass, it will let in more air.

2. Soak a large table cloth or small sheet in water and cover the hive that is under attack. Place the cloth so that it drapes over the entrance, to the ground. This prevents robbing bees from getting to the entrance. The hive's occupants will find their way in and out round the sides. During hot, dry weather, rewet the sheet as needed. Make sure to remove the sheet after one or two days. By that time the robbing behavior should have stopped.

3. Make sure there are no other entrances to the hive, check the open mesh floor for gaps, check if there are ways in under the roof and between boxes.

It is easier to prevent robbing than to stop it once it has started. Here’s what you can do -

1. Never leave honey or scraps of comb out in the open where the bees can find it.

2. When harvesting honey, keep your supers covered after removing from the hive.

3. Don't spill sugar syrup - not a single drop - when feeding your bees. Never feed your bees in the open.

4. Make sure each colony is fed at the same time and in the evening.

5. Make sure the size of the hive entrance matches the ability of the bees to defend it. Small colonies need small entrances!

Photo 1: ytimg, Photo 2: beekeeperlinda

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How Bees Naturally Vaccinate Their Babies    July 31, 2015

When a bee is born, they are already "vaccinated" against some diseases found in their environment. This immune system priming is passed along to the larvae from the queen bee via a blood protein called vitellogenin. Credit: Christofer BangWhen it comes to vaccinating their babies, bees don't have a choice—they naturally immunize their offspring against specific diseases found in their environments. And now for the first time, scientists have discovered how they do it.

Researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and Norwegian University of Life Sciences made the discovery after studying a bee blood protein called vitellogenin. The scientists found that this protein plays a critical, but previously unknown role in providing bee  protection against disease.

The findings appear today in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

"The process by which  transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now. What we found is that it's as simple as eating," said Gro Amdam, a professor with ASU's School of Life Sciences and co-author of the paper. "Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin. This exemplifies how long-term investments in basic research pay off."

Co-author Dalial Freitak, a postdoctoral researcher with University of Helsinki adds: "I have been working on bee immune priming since the start of my doctoral studies. Now almost 10 years later, I feel like I've solved an important part of the puzzle. It's a wonderful and very rewarding feeling!"


In a honey bee colony, the queen...

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Ask the Naturalist: Why Do Bees Clean Themselves?

Bay Nature  By Eric Mussen and Elina Nino   July 30, 2015

Photo: Dann Thombs/Flickr
Bay Nature’s marketing director had a recent experience with a very tidy-looking honeybee:

“I was sitting in my car this afternoon when I noticed a cute little bee on my windshield appearing to desperately clean something off itself. At first I thought, oh no, it fell into something and now it’s going to die from whatever contaminated it. I took a cup and put the bee inside, but it rebelled and flew out. When I returned home I googled it and learned that bees do this — clean off pollen, etc. — and especially their eyes before flying home to their hives!”

We decided to get to the bottom of this extraordinary bee behavior and reached out to Eric Mussen, an entomologist at the Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. He and colleague Elina Nino, an Extension apiculturist, sent in this explanation:

Answer: The inside of a bee hive is considered to be a pretty clean environment. The bees produce honey there and we eat it. But, why are honey bees and their hive so clean? It is in their genes.

Honey bees are akin to animated robots that move around in their environment responding to stimuli with behaviors that have served them well for millions of years. Building wax combs to use for food storage and baby bee production allows the bees to keep tens of thousands of bees huddled close together. However, if any type of microbial outbreak occurs, all this closeness could lead to an epidemic and colony death.

The bees exhibit a behavior that deals with that problem. They collect resins from various plant sources. They return to the hive with these sticky masses where their sisters help to unload them. Beekeepers call this substance bee glue (propolis) because it is used to fill small cracks in the hive and cements the boxes together. It also is mixed with beeswax and used as a thin varnish to line the walls of the hives and sometimes portion of combs. Those resins have surprising antimicrobial properties that are effective against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. So, the bees are encased in a shell of antibiotics. Some have suggested that the inside of a hive is as clean as a hospital room, but we are not quite sure about that.

As for the bees themselves, it is common to see them using their legs or mouthparts to clean off other parts of their bodies. For bees, we might think that they are simply moving around or brushing off pollen that they picked up when foraging. However, honey bees live in a suit of armor called an exoskeleton. The exoskeleton is waterproof and protects the insects from invasive microbes. But bees also have to sense what is going on around them, so they have sensory receptors on the surface of their exoskeleton. The most obvious sensory organs on bees are their compound eyes. Honey bees can see objects, detect polarized sunlight, and have good color discrimination, similar to that of humans, but shifted a bit in the color spectrum. Bees wipe their eyes every so often to keep them clean. We humans have eye lids that keep our eyes clean and moist.

The rest of the sensory organs on the exoskeleton are sensilla (stiff hairs and protuberances) or pits that serve as sensory receptors. The tips of honey bees’ antennae have many touch receptors, odor receptors, and a special sensory organ called Johnston’s organ that tells them how fast they are flying. Other sensilla bend when the bee changes positions, so it remains aligned with gravity when it is building comb cells. Sensilla on a queen bee’s antennae help her determine the size of a comb cell, which determines if she lays a worker- or drone-destined egg. So, all those sensilla must remain dust and pollen-free to function properly, allowing bees to remain as busy as, well, bees.

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With Just One Queen, How Do Honey Bees Avoid Inbreeding?

Entomology Today   April 30, 2015

Like other social insects, honey bees live in colonies consisting mainly of closely-related members. However, high genetic diversity among the workers is important for the whole colony’s survival because it makes them better equipped to perform the diverse tasks required in the colony, and it means they will likely be less susceptible to disease.

But how can the queen, the colony’s only fertile female, prevent inbreeding and maintain genetic variation?

The queen bee solves the problem in two ways. One is through polyandry — she mates with a score of drones and uses their sperm to fertilize the eggs randomly so that workers often have different fathers. The second is through extremely high rates of recombination.

Recombination, or crossing-over, occurs when sperm and egg cells are formed and segments of each chromosome pair are interchanged. This process plays a crucial role in the maintanance of genetic variation. Matthew Webster and Andreas Wallberg at the Biomedical Centre, Uppsala University, have studied recombination in honey bees. The extreme recombination rates found in this species seem to be crucial for their survival.

By sequencing the entire genome of 30 African honey bees, the research team has been able to study recombination at a level of detail not previously possible. The frequency of recombination in the honey bee is higher than measured in any other animal and is more than 20 times higher than in humans.

Recombination affects how efficiently natural selection can promote favorable genetic variants. In line with this, the researchers have found that genes involved in the new adaptations to the environment in honey bees also undergo more recombination. But recombination is not entirely risk free.

“Recombination is not only beneficial for bees,” Webster said. “When parts of chromosomes [are] broken and exchanged, errors can sometimes occur during their repair due to a process called ‘GC-biased gene conversion.'”

This process leads to gradual fixation of mutations that may be harmful to the honey bee. Although a similar process occurs in humans, it is more than ten times stronger in honey bees. Over time, recombination is expected to lead to a deterioration of the gene pool, a process that seems to have accelerated in bees. The extreme recombination rates — crucial for maintaining genetically diverse honey bee colonies — come with a high price.

“There are no free lunches, not even for a honey bee,” Webster said.

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Read more at: Extreme Recombination Frequencies Shape Genome Variation and Evolution in the Honeybee, Apis mellifera

Pollen Deprived Bees Don't Make Good Dancers

The New York Times   By Sindya N. Bhanoo   April 20, 2015

Worker bees without access to adequate pollen early in life turn out to be poor foragers, and dancers, as adults.

The bees’ so-called waggle dance, a figure-eight movement, is used to tell other members of the colony how far and in what direction to fly to find flowers. If the pollen-deprived bees went out to forage, they often did not return, said Heather Mattila, a biologist at Wellesley College..

Dr. Mattila and Hailey Scofield, an undergraduate student, raised one group of bees with limited access to pollen and another with adequate pollen. They combined the bees in one hive and observed them. Their study was published this month in PLOS One.

“Pollen-stressed workers were less likely to waggle dance, and if they danced, the information they conveyed was less precise,” Dr. Mattila said.

Outside the lab, bees encounter pollen stress regularly. At the beginning of spring, for instance, cold weather makes it difficult to search for pollen, and flowers have not fully bloomed.

Poor foraging and waggle dancing could add to the decline in honeybees, and threaten crops like apples and almonds that depend on the insects for pollination, Dr. Mattila said.

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Inside the Wonderful World of Bee Cognition

American Scientific    By Felicity Muth  April 20, 2015

A bumblebee drinks sugar water from an artificial flower and learns to return to yellow flowers in the future. Credit: Caroline StrangAs I wrote about in my last post, bees are capable of learning which flowers offer good nectar rewards based on floral features such as colour, smell, shape, texture, pattern, temperature and electric charge. They do this through associative learning: learning that a ‘conditioned stimulus’ (for example, the colour yellow) is associated with an ‘unconditioned stimulus’ (nectar). Learning simple associations like these is the basis of all learning – pretty much all animals do it, from humans to the sea slug which doesn’t even have a brain.

However, the world is rarely as simple as this and so animals need to be flexible. For example, as humans we might learn that if we put our bank card in a machine and enter a pin number we can obtain money. However, we might also have to learn that we can only access the bank machine inside the bank during particular hours, or that if we travel to another country their bank machines might operate differently. Therefore we need some behavioural flexibility around what we’ve learned. The same is true for bees. In a bee’s world, much of what she learns relates to getting food from flowers. However, it won’t always be as simple as ‘blue flowers have better nectar than yellow rewards’. Instead a bee might have to learn ‘blue flowers have better nectar than yellow flowers, but only in the morning’ or ‘this particular species of blue flower which also has a specific smell has better nectar than yellow flowers, but another species of blue flower has worse nectar’.

Honeybees can learn that two separate stimuli (i.e. yellow checkers and blue checkers) are good but that the combination isn't good

Honeybees can indeed learn more complex relationships like this. This has been shown in many different experiments using different protocols and in different contexts. For example, bees can be trained that an artificial flower which has a blue checkered pattern has good nectar rewards, and one with a yellow checkered pattern has good nectar rewards but a combination of the two (blue and yellow checkered) is not good. They can also be trained to the reverse (that the combination of the two stimuli is good, but that either by themselves is not good). Similarly, honeybees can be trained that only very particular combinations of stimuli are good; i.e. A and B together are good, and C and D together are good, but any other combination (e.g. A and C or B and D) are not good. The list of other complex relationships bees can learn is seemingly endless, but other impressive feats include honeybees’ ability to learn that rewards can be found in a specific location only at one particular time of day and that bumblebees can learn that the location of nectar alternates between two available options and solve physical problems

However, honeybees’ and bumblebees’ cognitive abilities go beyond these examples of simply learning about their worlds, be it under a number of complex conditions. One excellent study showed that bees could actually form abstract concepts about their world. Having an abstract concept is the ability to understand a general fact about the way things are and to being able to generalise that fact to new situations you might encounter, as opposed to learning relationships that only hold in one particular situation. As humans, we form abstract concepts about the world all the time, generalising from one situation to another. For example, one concept we form about the world is the concept of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’. If we were having dinner together and I asked you if you’d like ‘more of the same’, you would understand that if we had just been eating pasta that I was offering you more pasta. In another, totally different situation, say we’re operating on someone together and I ask you to pass me ‘the same instrument for stitching people closed that you just gave me a minute ago’ (I’m not sure why any doctor would ever phrase it this way; but let’s just suppose that they don’t have a great memory for medical instrument names), you would understand that you needed to pass me another needle. Therefore, you have the ability to take the concept of ‘sameness’ and use it in two totally different situations. But how would you go about asking a bee if she can do the same thing?

How do you test for abstract concepts in bees?

Researchers did this through a cleverly thought-out experiment. First they trained a bee that if she saw a particular colour (say, blue) then when she was later given a choice between blue and yellow, blue always had nectar whereas yellow did not (stages 1 and 2 on the diagram). Similarly, she was trained that if she saw yellow then when she was later given a choice, she had to choose yellow to get the reward (steps 3 and 4 on the diagram). Therefore, she always had to go to the same colour as the one she had previously seen to get the reward. The bees learned this without much difficulty. However, at this point it’s not clear whether the bee had actually learned the concept of ‘sameness’ or instead had just learned a rule for this one situation (e.g. ‘I go to yellow to get a reward when I see yellow and I go to blue to get a reward when I see blue’). To test whether the bees had actually learned the concept of ‘same’, the researchers then presented the bee with a new stimulus, one she had never seen before. This time it was a pattern: black and white horizontal stripes. The bee was then given a ‘transfer test’; a choice between a black and white striped horizontal pattern or a vertical pattern. If the bee had learned the rule ‘when I see a stimulus I then need to choose the same stimulus to get a reward’ (i.e. the concept of ‘same’) then she should fly to the horizontal stripes pattern (steps 5 and 6 on the diagram). This is indeed what the majority of bees did. Another group of bees were trained only to black and white horizontal patterns and then given transfer tests using blue and yellow colours; these bees also showed that they had learned the concept of ‘same’ by going to the correct colour. Now, the really cool part of this experiment was that the researchers then gave a new set of bees stimuli in a totally different modality: scent. Bees were trained that when they smelled a particular odour, they had to go to the same odour to get a reward. They were then given a transfer test in colour, and the bees transferred their knowledge to this new context, going to the ‘correct’ colour even though they had never been trained with colour before. In another set of bees, individuals were trained to go to the different stimulus to the one they had just seen before being given a transfer test, and their choices showed that they were also able to learn the concept of ‘difference’.

Bumblebee on flower. Credit: jinterwasAfter I tell people about some of these impressive cognitive abilities that bees have, another question that I often get asked is, ‘OK, so if bees are so smart, then why do they always fly into windows?’. I hope from what you’ve read in these two posts you can appreciate that when you want to ask a question of a bee you have to frame it in a way that the bee ‘understands’. If we were to ask a human a question, we could use language, to ask a bee a question, you generally use stimuli that represent flowers and nectar. Like all animals, the cognitive abilities of bees have been selected by natural selection to make the bee as good as possible at learning about things that it needs to know about its environment. This includes many complex relationships about how to get the best food from flowers, but sadly, doesn’t include the ability of how to best navigate windows.

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