Is the Key to Saving Pollinators … Honey Bee Semen?    By Simran Sethi   July 19, 2018

In the hopes of preserving their genetic diversity, entomologists are collecting and freezing this valuable fluid

A male bee releasing its seminal fluid at the USDA bee lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The male does not survive the process. (Anand Varma) The first question everyone wants to know is: how?

“I’m surprised it took you so long to ask,” Brandon Hopkins says with a laugh. The 35-year-old entomologist is preparing samples to be sent to the USDA Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, a facility dedicated to securing our food supply by collecting genetic material from agricultural species. “You pretty much just squeeze them, and the stuff pops out,” he says.

Hopkins is the apiary and lab manager of Washington State University’s Apiary Program, and the “stuff” he’s referring to is honey bee semen.

Yes, semen. Hopkins spends a lot of his time visiting beekeepers and collecting seminal fluid from drones, the male honey bees that exist primarily to impregnate queen bees. Or, as Hopkins puts it: “They’re flying genitalia. They don’t collect nectar; they don’t collect pollen. The only thing they do is mate.”

He prefers to capture drones during flight, when they are on their way back from their daily attempts to mate with a queen. Between 1 and 5 p.m.—their flight time—he sets mesh screens in front of the entrances to hives. Worker bees are small enough to get through the screens and back into their dwelling, but drones can’t. As they cling to the dividers, Hopkins springs into action, gathering the stinger-less bees in cages and placing them, one by one, under the microscope.

He explains his process: “When you squeeze a male, if he’s mature, his genitalia pops out. And then, floating on a bit of mucus, is about one microliter of semen.” Sadly, in nature, drones put so much blood and energy into reproduction that they die after successful mating. And this is what Hopkins mimics in the lab: “We squeeze them to the point where they die,” he says. It takes Hopkins about an hour to process 300-500 drones and fill a single 100-microliter tube with their reproductive fluid.

The follow-up question, of course, is: why? That is: why in the world are scientists collecting bee semen?


In short, as a hedge for the future. “There could be unique and valuable [variants of a gene] that may not be noticeably valuable at this point,” but could become incredibly important in the face of a yet-unknown future threat, Hopkins says of the genetic material he collects. Most of the semen is frozen, catalogued and stored in Fort Collins, where the hope is that it will stay viable for years, perhaps decades, just waiting to be thawed out so it can impregnate a honey bee far in the future.

Or not so far in the future. Honey bees already face plenty of threats: pests and diseases, pesticides and fungicides, nutrition and the way colonies are managed, both in terms of beekeeping and breeding and genetics. Topping the list is a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which reproduces in honey bee colonies and lives up to its sinister name by sucking the blood from adults and developing larvae. It has been devastating bee populations since it was first detected in the United States in 1987.

By the numbers, the situation is dire. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, in the late 1940s, we had nearly 6 million managed beehives in the United States. By 2008, that number dropped to just over 2 million—and has stayed there ever since. The semen Hopkins collects, then, could help protect, or even expand, future generations of honey bees—which means safeguarding billions of dollars in agricultural crops and an inestimable wealth of biodiversity for the planet.

Brandon Hopkins, hard at work collecting bee semen. (Steve Sheppard)

While the United States is home to around 4,000 native bees, our agricultural pollinator of choice is the non-native honey bee, which hails from South and Southeast Asia. That’s because honey bees are prolific and multipurpose pollinators, says Bob Danka, the research leader of the USDA Honey Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While some bees pollinate a single species of plant, honey bees forage on over 100 commercial cropsdelivering nearly $3,000 worth of pollination services per hectare per crop.

In the U.S., honey bees handle “something like 90 percent of pollination,” Danka explains, and one colony averages a peak summer population of upwards of 60,000 bees. “Other bees can’t exist in large enough numbers to pollinate vast acreages of crops,” he says. The bees can also be moved in and out of various locations with relative ease, which is essential for crops like almonds, which require cross-pollination.

Between February and March of each year, 80 to 90 percent of the country’s available commercial bees—about 1.8 million colonies—are trucked to California to pollinate almond blossoms. But the work doesn’t end there. These bees are used year-round for their labor, writes Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American:

“After the almond bloom, some beekeepers take their honeybees to cherry, plum and avocado orchards in California and apple and cherry orchards in Washington State. Come summer time, many beekeepers head east to fields of alfalfa, sunflowers and clover in North and South Dakota, where the bees produce the bulk of their honey for the year. Other beekeepers visit squashes in Texas, clementines and tangerines in Florida, cranberries in Wisconsin and blueberries in Michigan and Maine. All along the east coast migratory beekeepers pollinate apples, cherries, pumpkins, cranberries and various vegetables. By November, beekeepers begin moving their colonies to warm locales to wait out the winter: California, Texas, Florida and even temperature-controlled potato cellars in Idaho.”

This overreliance on honey bee labor, however, has its dangers. “We, in North America, have painted ourselves into this corner using honey bees because of modern agricultural practices and our need to produce large amounts of crops efficiently,” Danka says. And the work is starting to stress the bees out: “The pressure on them is very real, and it seems to be getting worse.”

Today, you might think of these bees as fully dependent on humans. “When Varroa mites came to the U.S., it eliminated 99 percent of the feral population of honey bees,” Hopkins says. “Some are saying there are no wild honey bees now because they can’t survive without human intervention. They’re like a domestic species.”

This codependent relationship with humans is revealed in changes in bee nutrition. Bees are just like us: They need a varied diet in order to thrive. As our diets have become less diverse, so have theirs. The expansion of industrialized agriculture and increase in monocrops grown in monoculture means there is little diversity in the plants from which bees source pollen and nectar. The habitats where they forage have turned into what Marla Spivak, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, describes as “food deserts.”

The challenge is exacerbated, Spivak explains in a 2012 TED talk, by the convergence of supply and demand. At the same time we’re experiencing a decline in bee populations, we’re also growing an increasing number of crops that rely on them. In the last half-century, she says in her talk, “there has been a 300 percent increase in crop production that requires bee pollination.” Just last year, American beekeepers lost approximately 40 percent of their honey bee colonies.

Cryopreserved tubes of honey bee semen stored at the USDA’s genetic preservation center in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Simran Sethi)

That’s why, in 2016, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service decided to add honey bee semen to its Fort Collins collection, which also stores a range of other materials—from seeds and stems to animal blood and embryos—that are essential for sustaining our domestic food supply. “It is part of [our] response to the ongoing crisis that the country’s beekeepers are facing,” the institution wrote in its online post announcing the launch.

The man tasked with the glamorous job of collecting the semen? Brandon Hopkins.

In 2008, the modern-day honey bee sperm collector was wrapping up a master’s degree in biology at Eastern Washington University focusing on the reproductive biology of frogs and mice. When Hopkins learned about the challenges bee populations were facing, however, he decided to explore a method that has been used to preserve the semen of cows and other animals: cryogenic freezing. Traditionally, bee semen specimens were extracted, stored at room temperature and stayed viable for about two weeks.

“I had never even really seen a honey bee hive,” Hopkins says. “But, fortunately, my master’s advisor had been [working] long enough in the mammalian world—with cattle and sheep and goats and all that stuff—and he said, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.’ Rather than waiting to get a perfect system, we went ahead and did it.”

In fact, Hopkins explains, they set about freezing honey bee semen despite the fact that one of the last papers written about cryopreservation from the 1980s stated the results weren’t good enough and that researchers should stop pursuing that method of storage. Nevertheless, Hopkins extracted a single capillary tube of semen (100 microliters), froze it and had “pretty good success.”

This was happening at the same time that Washington State University researcher Steve Sheppard, head of the WSU Apis Molecular Systematics Laboratory, was out in the field, collecting fresh material of the same variety. That year, he had been awarded the only permit given by USDA to import semen from global bee populations into the United States. Those samples became the foundation of what has become the largest collection of bee germplasm in the world, stored at WSU and containing subspecies native to Europe, Western Asia and Central Europe.

Sheppard subsequently became Hopkins’ PhD advisor, and the two of them started traveling together, collecting bee semen and freezing it on-site. The work came with unique challenges. “The problem with fresh semen is that you only get that one shot,” Hopkins explains. “It’s very expensive and time-consuming to collect overseas. Then you use it and may have a queen that doesn’t even produce any progeny.”

But it also paid off: Hopkins says the material collected and frozen five years ago is “the same as if it had been frozen for five days.”

When asked if he ever envisioned this as his life’s work, Hopkins was clear: “No. For sure not.” But he sees the incredible value in the work he’s doing. “The cool thing about the incorporation of cryopreservation in bee breeding is that it will allow us to breed across space and time,” Sheppard said in an email. “We can retrieve genetics years after it’s been placed in storage. So, you can envision that, in 2030, we could cross the bees back to material from 2015 that we have [stored] in the liquid nitrogen tank.”

And that’s why it’s important to preserve material that’s both commercially viable and diverse. “While I don’t really think that we’re going to suddenly lose all our honey bees and need to tap into this frozen stock to repopulate the planet with bees, it is too bad that we weren’t doing this before, say, Varroa mites came,” Hopkins says. “We lost a huge amount of genetic diversity in the U.S. population that we can’t really get back because we didn’t have any frozen material.”

To get back to that level of diversity, he says, there is more work to be done. “Honey bees are an agricultural domestic species now,” says Hopkins. “They need the same research and attention that cattle, for example, get. It would be great if they were better recognized—in conservation, breeding techniques, selection, all [it takes] to improve them.”

Clever Bees Can Identify Different Flowers by Patterns of Scent

June 14, 2018


Certain aromas trigger memories in humans, transporting us back in time. But how well do bees understand scent? And can they translate scent cues into a visual imprint? New research led by scientists from the University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London demonstrates that bumble bees have keen sniffers, letting them tell flowers apart by patterns of scent.

Flowers have lots of different patterns on their surfaces that help to guide bees and other pollinators towards the flower's nectar, speeding up pollination. These patterns include visual signals like lines pointing to the center of the flower, or color differences. Flowers are also known to have different patterns of scent across their surface, and so a visiting bee might find that the centre of the flower smells differently to the edge of the petals.

Bumble bees can tell flowers apart simply by how scent is arranged on their surface according to new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Lead author Dr. Dave Lawson, from the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said: "If you look at a flower with a microscope, you can often see that the cells that produce the flower's scent are arranged in patterns.

"By creating artificial flowers that have identical scents arranged in different patterns, we are able to show that this patterning might be a signal to a bee. For a flower, it's not just smelling nice that's important, but also where you put the scent in the first place."

The study also shows that once bees had learnt how a pattern of scent was arranged on a flower, they then preferred to visit unscented flowers that had a similar arrangement of visual spots on their surface.

Dr. Lawson added: "This is the equivalent of a human putting her hand in a bag to feel the shape of a novel object which she can't see, and then picking out a picture of that object. Being able to mentally switch between different senses is something we take for granted, but it's exciting that a small animal like a bee is also able to do something this abstract."

Professor Lars Chittka, from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said: "We already knew that bees were clever, but we were really surprised by the fact that bees could learn invisible patterns on flowers - patterns that were just made of scent.

"The scent glands on our flowers were either arranged in a circle or a cross, and bees had to figure out these patterns by using their feelers. But the most exciting finding was that, if these patterns are suddenly made visible by the experimenter, bees can instantly recognize the image that formerly was just an ephemeral pattern of volatiles in the air."

Senior author, Dr. Sean Rands, also from Bristol, added: "Flowers often advertise to their pollinators in lots of different ways at once, using a mixture of color, shape, texture, and enticing smells.

"If bees can learn patterns using one sense (smell) and then transfer this to a different sense (vision), it makes sense that flowers advertise in lots of ways at the same time, as learning one signal will mean that the bee is primed to respond positively to different signals that they have never encountered.

"Advertising agencies would be very excited if the same thing happened in humans."

Around 75 percent of all food grown globally relies on flowers being pollinated by animals such as bees. The work published today is part of ongoing research at the University of Bristol that explores the many different ways in which plants communicate with their pollinators, using different innovative techniques to explore how bees perceive the flowers that they visit.

2 LSU Researchers Get Nearly $1M to Study Honeybee Stress

U.S. News     June 25, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Two Louisiana State University researchers are getting nearly $1 million for a two-year study of how mite treatment and stress affect honeybee health.

Kristen Healy and Daniel Swale are working with U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers in Baton Rouge and the nation's largest beekeeper, the LSU AgCenter said in a news release Thursday.

They'll be studying 400 hives of honeybees owned by Adee Honey Farms of Bruce, South Dakota, including some that are moved to California for the fall almond harvest and then to Mississippi for the winter.

Healy said they will sample pollen, nectar and bees from hives during and at the end of the study.

"We can look at which colonies failed and which ones didn't and quantify which stress variables were more important to the relative health of the bees," Healy said.

LSU is getting $935,000. It's among seven universities getting a total of $6.8 million from the USDA to study pollinators.

Healy will see how bees treated with a mite control product compare to untreated bees.

Swale will study whether the moves make them spend more energy, reducing their fat storage — and if there's a way to boost those fats.

The researchers also are interested how a virus that causes deformed wings is spread.

The grant also includes an extension component so the researchers can determine the best methods to get bee health information to beekeepers and the public.

The USDA estimates honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops.

Bayer Building on Feed a Bee Buzz!

AGWired    By Cindy Zimmerman     February 24, 2017

The Feed a Bee Steering Committee, made up of Feed a Bee partners and representatives from the Bayer Bee Care Program, will be contributing $500,000 for research and additional forage over the course of the next two years.

“We convened the steering committee to address an extreme need, now more than ever, to invest in forage and planting initiatives across the country,” said Dr. Becky Langer, project manager, North American Bee Health, Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “Today’s announcement represents a collaborative effort of some of the leading bee health stakeholders who are making it our mission to support the expansion of these programs and make sure organizations in every state in the U.S. have the opportunity to bring their pollinator initiatives to life.”

The committee is requesting forage initiative proposals that will promote pollinator health and help provide a tangible solution to the current lack of forage. Organizations including, but not limited to, nonprofits, growers (individual and trade groups), beekeepers (individual and associations), businesses, schools, clubs, gardening groups, government agencies, etc. are encouraged to submit a proposal.

Surprised Honeybees Give 'Whopping Signal' in the Hive, Study Shows

PHYS.ORG     February 15, 2017

A honeybee signal – widely thought to be used by bees in the hive to prevent one another from advertising the location of food – could also be a response to being startled or surprised, according to scientists.

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University monitored the vibrations passed between bees in a bid to learn more about the 'stop signal', used by the insects to warn of potential dangers outside the hive.

The researchers argue that the signal, which appears as a 'whooping' sound, occurs in many instances when it is not purely inhibitory. This includes, regularly, when the bees become surprised or startled by involuntary stimuli.

The stop signal is a pulsed vibrational message believed to be directed at bees performing the 'waggle dance' – the method through which they share information about the location of food with other members of the colony.

But the researchers, writing in the journal PLOS One, have found that this signal occurs far too frequently – and at the wrong times of day – for it to only carry an inhibitory function.

They found that the vast majority of such signals occurred at night – when there would be no waggle dances being performed – with a distinct reduction towards midday, when more waggle dances would be occurring.

They also found instances where the signal was produced more than five times per minute, for several successive days, within a small area of the colony.

The scientists were able to show that the signal regularly occurred as a result of accidental collisions between bees within the hive, suggesting that it is an involuntary startle response to a surprise stimulus – such as being landed on by a falling nest mate.

The high occurrences of the signal at night could be due to the increased numbers of bees within the hive at that time, they suggest.

It was also found that the signal peaks when the weather is particularly bad and the bees cannot leave the hive.

It is well known that honeybees use vibrational signals to transfer information to one another across the honeycomb.

The new study, led by researchers in the university's School of Science and Technology, is the first to successfully achieve long-term automated and non-invasive monitoring of honeybee vibrational messages from within the heart of colonies.

It involved placing ultra-sensitive vibrational sensors called accelerometers into the honeycomb in the centre of two hives in the UK and France, continuously recording the vibrational amplitude and frequency over the course of a year. Home-built computer software then enabled the team to scan through a full year of recordings to detect the specific pulse of interest.

A specially-developed observation hive was also used to make video recordings of bees in real-time with the vibrational recordings.

It was found that the same signal could be elicited en masse by gently shaking or knocking the hive.

"We have found that this signal is remarkably common, much more than previously thought," said Dr Martin Bencsik, researcher and physicist at Nottingham Trent University.

He said: " Scientists in the past have explored this signal in artificial circumstances where they ensured that the bees under investigation would be trying to inhibit other bees.

"In our study we have not manipulated our bees in any way, and this has revealed totally unexpected results, yielding new interpretations but also yet more mystery around this brief honeybee vibrational pulse. We believe that in only a small number of instances is it used as an inhibitory signal and therefore have proposed a new name – the 'whooping signal'."

Researcher Michael T. Ramsey added: "Through our work we are expanding the understanding of honeybee communication. This vibrational pulse was originally known as the 'begging signal' as it was believed to be a request for food, then it was thought to be a purely inhibitory 'stop signal'. Now we have taken this another step forward.

"It shows promise that our methods can be used as a sensitive way of monitoring and assessing colony status for these hugely important pollinators."

 Explore further: Vibrating bees tell the state of the hive

More information: Michael Ramsey et al. Long-term trends in the honeybee 'whooping signal' revealed by automated detection, PLOS ONE (2017). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171162 

Journal reference: PLoS ONE

Read more at:

Spatial and Taxonomic Patterns of Honey Bee Foraging: A Choice Test Between Urban and Agricultural Landscapes (Journal of Urban Ecology)

Ohio State University  By Denise Ellsworth   February 16, 2017

The health of honey bee colonies cannot be understood apart from the landscapes in which they live. Urban and agricultural developments are two of the most dramatic and widespread forms of human land use, but their respective effects on honey bees remain poorly understood. Here, we evaluate the relative attractiveness of urban and agricultural land use to honey bees by conducting a foraging choice test. Our study was conducted in the summer and fall, capturing a key portion of the honey bee foraging season that includes both the shift from summer- to fall-blooming flora and the critical period of pre-winter food accumulation. Colonies located at an apiary on the border of urban and agricultural landscapes were allowed to forage freely, and we observed their spatial and taxonomic foraging patterns using a combination of dance language analysis and pollen identification. We found a consistent spatial bias in favor of the agricultural landscape over the urban, a pattern that was corroborated by the prevalence in pollen samples of adventitious taxa common in the agricultural landscape. The strongest bias toward the agricultural environment occurred late in the foraging season, when goldenrod became the principal floral resource. We conclude that, in our study region, the primary honey bee foraging resources are more abundant in agricultural than in urban landscapes, a pattern that is especially marked at the end of the foraging season as colonies prepare to overwinter. Urban beekeepers in this region should, therefore, consider supplemental feeding when summer-blooming flora begin to decline. (Full paper here.)

Douglas B. Sponsler, Emma G. Matcham, Chia-Hua Lin, Jessie L. Lanterman, Reed M. Johnson

2017 Spring Pollen and Nectar Source: Pussy Willow

Bee Informed Partnership     By Rob Snyder     February 14, 2017

As spring approaches and the days grow longer, more plants are starting to bloom, including pussy willows. These plants usually bloom here in Northern California between February and March. There are several species of this plant but Salix discolor is the most commonly found. I usually find these trees near water though they are also used as ornamental plantings. There is a tree in the image below in bloom.

Willow starting to bloom.

Once you get closer to the trees, you can start to see the catkins, which are unique on this plant as opposed to the alders which are also in bloom now (For more information see Ben’s Blog from last week). There are two pictures below showing the difference between the two catkins. Here you can see the anthers of the pussy willow which don’t appear to have much powdery pollen on them because of the rain and wind. The dioecious trees produce both nectar and pollen, only the male produces pollen. They can produce a considerable amount of nectar but usually it is too cold for the bees to really work the plants. I’ve read that they can produce 100-150 lbs. of nectar and 1500 lbs. of pollen per acre, but have not seen this in any operations. The pollen has 20-25% crude protein, about average in blooming plants, but helps when nothing else is really blooming at the time..

Alder Catkins

Pussy Willow Catkin.

A compelling point about the pussy willows is that they are easy to propagate; you can cut off new growth and place it in water for several weeks until roots are visible and then the cutting is now ready to plant. I have not tried this, but I would think rooting hormone would speed up the process. I may attempt to propagate some this spring. I will post photos if everything works out

Microchips Suggest That a Virus Is Controlling the Minds of Infected Honeybees

Seeker   By Jen Viegas     January 31, 2017

Honeybees outfitted with tiny microchips reveal possible bizarre effects of a covert, yet deadly, virus.

Honeybee with microchip (RFID tag) attached. Credit: Kristof Benaets

Detective work involving honeybees outfitted with ultra-small microchips reveals that a virus once thought to be relatively benign is causing honeybees to live fast and die young.

The pathogen, a covert form of deformed wing virus that is described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, may even be exerting a form of mind control over worker honeybees.

"It's possible that the virus has evolutionary interests in manipulating workers to move out of the hive and then maybe transmit the virus to other patches in the environment or cause them to drift to other hives," author Tom Wenseleers of the University of Leuven told Seeker.

He added that the theory may seem far-fetched, "but is in fact not that unlikely, given that the virus has been found to concentrate in specific centers of the brain that are involved in higher cognitive processes."

He, lead author Kristof Benaets and their team tracked the movements of honeybees using the microchips — known as RFID tags — that weigh less than .0002 ounces. The little devices, affixed in this case to the backs of bees, are most commonly used to tag items in stores to prevent theft. The new study is among the first to tap the devices for investigating the impact of pollinator viruses.

The researchers found that adult worker honeybees with deformed wing virus often show no outward physical symptoms of the illness, which can otherwise cause crippled wings when victims are infected in the larval stage.

Still, the infected adult workers show bizarre behavior. They start foraging at much earlier ages, reduce their activity levels earlier than other adult workers and then die younger than honeybees without the virus.

Aside from the possible mind control abilities of the virus, the initial fast living of the sick honeybees could be because the pollinators detect that they are ill and react by leaving the hive early in order to avoid infecting their nest mates, Wenseleers explained.

Photo: Studying a section of a beekeepers' hive. Credit: Layla AertsHoneybees, like other insects, have an immune system and can fight off viral diseases, but their ability to do so has been suppressed in recent years. Other research has shown that certain pesticides can weaken honeybee immune systems, as well as diminish bee sperm

Yet another problem, according to Wenseleers, is "the free trade in bee queens, which are shipped around the world." If these bees are infected with deformed wing virus, they can easily pass it on to their daughter workers.

Deformed wing virus in all of its forms — both obvious and covert — is part of the so-called "Beepocalypse," also known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been years in the making. Starting around the year 2006, beekeepers reported tremendous losses, with hives reduced up to 90 percent in some instances.

Solving the longstanding problem is proving to be very challenging. To prevent the deformed wing virus from spreading, Wenseleers hopes that beekeepers will "rely more on locally acquired bee stocks, to avoid diseases from spreading."

Since parasitic Varroa mites are also known to transmit the virus to honeybees, efforts to control these pests are ongoing. Wenseleers said that "some beekeepers think that the best course of action may in fact be a very simple one: just let nature take its course and let the bees themselves develop Varroa resistance."

On the other hand, he added, the agrochemical company giant Monsanto has been trying to develop a method called RNA Interference (RNAi) to combat bee and other animal diseases, including deformed wing virus. RNA is a molecule in the cells of plants and animals that helps to make proteins.

Wenseleers explained that the method relies on mixing synthetic RNA in a sugary syrup fed to bees. The synthetic compound "is designed to bind to specific genes of the pathogen or parasite, thereby preventing it from replicating." The technique still needs refinement, possibly because the synthetic RNA is not stable enough over long periods of time.

"With further development, though, this revolutionary new method could well have a lot of promise to treat viral diseases, including in crops, livestock or humans," Wenseleers said.

Bees Learn to Play Golf and Show Off How Clever They Really Are

Daily News / New Scientist   By Sam Wong    February 23, 2017

I’ll show you ball skills Lida Loukola/QMUL

It’s a hole in one! Bumblebees have learned to push a ball into a hole to get a reward, stretching what was thought possible for small-brained creatures.

Plenty of previous studies have shown that bees are no bumbling fools, but these have generally involved activities that are somewhat similar to their natural foraging behaviour.

For example, bees were able to learn to pull a string to reach an artificial flower containing sugar solution. Bees sometimes have to pull parts of flowers to access nectar, so this isn’t too alien to them.

So while these tasks might seem complex, they don’t really show a deeper level of learning, says Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London, an author of that study.

Loukola and his team decided the next challenge was whether bees could learn to move an object that was not attached to the reward.

They built a circular platform with a small hole in the centre filled with sugar solution, into which bees had to move a ball to get a reward. A researcher showed them how to do this by using a plastic bee on a stick to push the ball.

The researchers then took three groups of other bees and trained them in different ways. One group observed a previously trained bee solving the task; another was shown the ball moving into the hole, pulled by a hidden magnet; and a third group was given no demonstration, but was shown the ball already in the hole containing the reward.

The bees then did the task themselves. Those that had watched other bees do it were most successful and took less time than those in the other groups to solve the task. Bees given the magnetic demonstration were also more successful than those not given one.

When the bees were trained with three balls placed at different distances from the hole, with the two closest ones glued down, most of the successful bees that then did the task still moved the ball that was closest to the hole. This showed that they were able to make generalisations to solve the task more easily, rather than copying exactly what they had seen.

They also succeeded when faced with a black ball after being trained with a yellow one, showing they weren’t just attracted to the specific colour.

Flexible thinking

“They don’t just blindly copy the demonstrator; they can improve on what they learned,” says Loukola. He thinks this cognitive flexibility could help the bees forage successfully in changing natural environments. “This ability to copy others and improve upon what they observe, I think that’s really important.”

Loukola also thinks the behaviour fulfils the criteria for being defined as tool use, which is normally thought of as the preserve of only a few particularly intelligent animals, such as primates and crows.

Eirik Søvik at Volda University College in Norway agrees. He says that people tend to look for simple explanations when small-brained animals do something, but consider the same thing a complex phenomenon when it’s done by vertebrates.

In fact, he says, the same mechanisms may be at play in apparently complex behaviours of both insects and invertebrate – and tool use may not require as much brainpower as we thought.

“If you apply the same level of scrutiny to vertebrate experiments as to those done with insects, you quickly find that although something might at first appear complex, the same simple mechanisms we find in insects also are at play in vertebrates,” he says.

Bees’ cognitive abilities are of interest to artificial intelligence researchers, some of whom build computer models of insects’ brains to help learn how nature creates complex behaviour. Behavioural studies of insects are increasingly showing that you can do a lot with very limited hardware.

“The old-fashioned view is if an animal has a small brain, it’s not intelligent or smart,” says Loukola. “Our study shows it’s not true that small brains are not capable of this kind of cognitive flexibility.”

Søvik thinks the main limitation for research on insect cognition is human creativity.

“We just have not been very good at designing experiments that allow us to probe insect cognition very well,” he says. “That’s probably because it is so incredibly difficult to imagine how bees experience the world, and if you want to give them tasks they can succeed at, that is key. I think the authors here really succeed at taking the bees’ view of the world.”

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360

Scents and Sense Ability: Diesel Fuels Alter Half the Flower Smells Bees Need

University of Southhampton   Press Release    October 19, 2015

This is an electron scanning microscope image of a bee. Photo: Dr Robbie GirlingIn polluted environments, diesel fumes may be reducing the availability of almost half the most common flower odours that bees use to find their food, research has found.

The new findings suggest that toxic nitrous oxide (NOx) in diesel exhausts could be having an even greater effect on bees' ability to smell out flowers than was previously thought.

NOx is a poisonous pollutant produced by diesel engines which is harmful to humans, and has also previously been shown to confuse bees' sense of smell, which they rely on to sniff out their food.

Researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Reading found that there is now evidence to show that, of the eleven most common single compounds in floral odours, five have can be chemically altered by exposure to NOx gases from exhaust fumes.

Lead author Dr Robbie Girling, from the University of Reading's Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (formerly of University of Southampton), said: "Bees are worth millions to the British economy alone, but we know they have been in decline worldwide.

"We don't think that air pollution from diesel vehicles is the main reason for this decline, but our latest work suggests that it may have a worse effect on the flower odours needed by bees than we initially thought.

"People rely on bees and pollinating insects for a large proportion of our food, yet humans have paid the bees back with habitat destruction, insecticides, climate change and air pollution.

"This work highlights that pollution from dirty vehicles is not only dangerous to people's health, but could also have an impact on our natural environment and the economy."

Co-author Professor Guy Poppy, from Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, said: "It is becoming clear that bees are at risk from a range of stresses from neonicitinoid insecticides through to varroa mites. Our research highlights that a further stress could be the increasing amounts of vehicle emissions affecting air quality. Whilst it is unlikely that these emissions by themselves could be affecting bee populations, combined with the other stresses, it could be the tipping point."


This latest research is part of continuing studies into the effects of air pollution on bees. Previous work in 2013 found that bees in the lab could be confused by the effects of diesel pollution. Dr Girling and Dr Tracey Newman from the University of Southampton are currently studying how diesel fumes may have direct effects on the bees themselves.

The work is published in the Journal of Chemical Ecology and was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Neonics Severely Affecting Queen Bees

Bug Squad     By Kathy Keatley Garvey   October 15, 2015

Everyone from scientists to environmentalists to beekeepers are clamoring for more research on the effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees.

How do neonics affect queen bees?

Newly published research led by Geoffrey Williams of the Institute of Bee Health, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Bern, Switzerland, indicates that neonics severely affect queen bees.

They published the article, Neonicotinoid Pesticides Severely Affect Honey Bee Queens, on Oct. 13 in the "Scientific Reports" section of Nature. The abstract:

"Queen health is crucial to colony survival of social bees. Recently, queen failure has been proposed to be a major driver of managed honey bee colony losses, yet few data exist concerning effects of environmental stressors on queens. Here we demonstrate for the first time that exposure to field-realistic concentrations of neonicotinoid pesticides during development can severely affect queens of western honey bees (Apis mellifera). In pesticide-exposed queens, reproductive anatomy (ovaries) and physiology (spermathecal-stored sperm quality and quantity), rather than flight behaviour, were compromised and likely corresponded to reduced queen success (alive and producing worker offspring). This study highlights the detriments of neonicotinoids to queens of environmentally and economically important social bees, and further strengthens the need for stringent risk assessments to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services that are vulnerable to these substances."

Williams and his research team correctly noted that "a plethora of literature has demonstrated lethal and sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on social bees in the field and laboratory" but that much of that research was done on worker bees.

"In this study, we hypothesised that exposure to field-realistic concentrations of neonicotinoid pesticides would significantly reduce honey bee queen performance due to possible changes in behaviour, and reproductive anatomy and physiology," they wrote. "To test this, we exposed developing honey bee queens to environmentally-relevant concentrations of the common neonicotinoid pesticides thiamethoxam and clothianidin. Both pesticides are widely applied in global agro-ecosystems and are accessible to pollinators such as social bees, but are currently subjected to two years of restricted use in the European Union because of concerns over their safety. Upon eclosion, queens were allowed to sexually mature. Flight behaviour was observed daily for 14 days, whereas production of worker offspring was observed weekly for 4 weeks. Surviving queens were sacrificed to examine their reproductive systems."

They called for more research on the effects of the pesticides on queen bee reproduction:

"Current regulatory requirements for evaluating safety of pesticides to bees fail to directly address effects on reproduction. This is troubling given the key importance of queens to colony survival and their frailty in adjusting to environmental conditions. Our findings highlight the apparent vulnerability of queen anatomy and physiology to common neonicotinoid pesticides, and demonstrate the need for future studies to identify appropriate measures of queen stress response, including vitellogenin expression. They additionally highlight the general lack of knowledge concerning both lethal and sub-lethal effects of these substances on queen bees, and the importance of proper evaluation of pesticide safety to insect reproduction, particularly for environmentally and economically important social bee species." Read the full report.

Meanwhile, the University of California, Davis, just held a sold-out conference on neonics. The speakers' presentations (slide shows) are posted on the California Center for Urban Horticulture's website.

Everyone agrees on this: more research is needed.

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EPA Registers New Biochemical Miticide to Combat Varroa Mites in Beehives

   September 30, 2015

EPA has registered a new biochemical miticide, Potassium Salts of Hops Beta Acids (K-HBAs), which is intended to provide another option for beekeepers to combat the devastating effects of the Varroa mite on honey bee colonies and to avoid the development of resistance toward other products. Rotating products to combat Varroa mites is an important tactic to prevent resistance development and to maintain the usefulness of individual pesticides.

The registrant, a company called Beta Tech Hop Products, derived K-HBAs from the cones of female hop plants, Humulus lupulus. To control mites on honey bees, the product is applied inside commercial beehives via plastic strips.

Varroa mites are parasites that feed on developing bees, leading to brood mortality and reduced lifespan of worker bees. They also transmit numerous honeybee viruses. The health of a colony can be critically damaged by an infestation of Varroa mites. Once infested, if left untreated, the colony will likely die.

This biochemical, like all biopesticides, is a naturally-occurring substance with minimal toxicity and a non-toxic mode of action against the target pest(s). There are numerous advantages to using biopesticides, including reduced toxicity to other organisms (not intended to be affected), effectiveness in small quantities, and reduced environmental impact. 

More information on this registration can be found at in Docket ID EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0375.

Find out about other EPA efforts to address pollinator loss:

Learn more about biopesticides:

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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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Pollen DNA Reveals Honey Bee Foraging Habits

Entomology Today   January 13, 2015

Exactly what plants do honey bees visit on their daily forages for food? A research team from Ohio State University has found that the answer lies in the pollen collected by the bees, and they have developed a new method that utilizes DNA metabarcoding to analyze pollen to determine its origin. Their new protocol has been published in the journal Applications in Plant Sciences.

“Understanding honey bees’ pollen preferences can provide insights to what a colony needs and help improve the quality of foraging habitats,” said Dr. Chia-Hua Lin, one of the co-authors.

Their work should provide other researchers with a foundation for uncovering information from pollen DNA, and it will also enable bees to do some environmental science fieldwork.

“A honey bee colony is like an army of research assistants — thousands of enthusiastic, flying research assistants that work all day and trespass with impunity,” said Doug Sponsler, another co-author. “While foraging each day, bees are unknowingly monitoring plants in their surrounding landscapes, some hard to reach by researchers, and collecting valuable data in the form of pollen. They can also serve as bioindicators of pollution and pesticides.”

According to his colleague and co-author Rodney Richardson, traditional methods of analyzing pollen data under the microscope suffer from being difficult, slow, and often imprecise.

“There’s a huge bottleneck in the workflow because ultimately every sample needs the undivided attention of one expert behind a microscope,” Richardson said.

DNA metabarcoding is a promising alternative because it allows rapid identification of the genera or even species present in a mass DNA sample of multiple organisms. The technology has been gaining popularity across many fields of biology, and Richardson and colleagues are among the first to apply it to pollen analysis.

“It’s a first attempt that lets other researchers know what to expect, using the ITS2 marker in particular,” said Richardson.

Metabarcoding resulted in higher sensitivity and resolution, and identified twice as many plant families than microscopic analysis of the same pollen samples. However, it lacks the ability to quantitatively assess the relative proportions of each pollen type, something that will need to be addressed in future advancements.

For now, a combination of traditional microscopic analysis with DNA metabarcoding offers a deeper look into bee foraging behavior than either method alone. For scientists, this is only the beginning of uncovering the secret life of bees. For the bees, it is only the beginning of their work as research assistants.

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Read more at: Application of ITS2 Metabarcoding to Determine the Provenance of Pollen Collected by Honey Bees in an Agroecosystem

When Worker Bees Get a Promotion

The New York Times/Science     By James Gorman   September 8, 2014

The honeybee hive would not seem to be the place to look for individuality, flexibility in job duties and social mobility. But by using new techniques for analyzing bee behavior, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently found that the life of a bee is less rigidly determined than had been thought.

They first discovered that an elite 20 percent of foragers do 50 percent of all the foraging, and then found that membership in this group was surprisingly flexible. When the elite bees were removed from the hive, less hard-working bees raised the level of their activity and a new elite emerged.

Gene E. Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the university, said he and other researchers set out to look at the behavior of bees in a new way partly because of “an increasing appreciation of the role of the individual in social insects.”

Teasing out the differences in individual levels of foraging activity required some new tools, both for observing the bees and for analyzing the data.

To work on the first part of the problem, Dr. Robinson said, Paul Tenczar, a retired computer entrepreneur and enthusiastic citizen scientist, joined the lab. He worked with scientists to devise a kind of E-ZPass system for bees involving tiny electronic ID tags, entry and exit tubes for a hive, and laser scanners to track the bees as they passed through the tubes (think toll plazas).

But even with the technology functioning at a high level to track the bees’ activity, analytical tools had to be developed to understand and interpret the data, Dr. Robinson said.

The results, which the team of scientists reported in the September issue of Animal Behaviour, showed first that there was an elite group among the foraging bees.

Then, by removing those top performers, the team found that other bees took their place. It was, said Dr. Robinson, “elitism with a populist streak.”

They also found, in mining the data, that over the life of an individual bee, patterns of foraging activity fluctuated and that individual bees had different life histories.

The approach to studying behavior using so-called big data is like that used by Internet companies to track people’s shopping behavior. Such new techniques, Dr. Robinson said, showed the power of “massive amounts of surveillance” to “reveal previously inaccessible data about individual behavior” in insects. And just when bees thought Facebook had ignored them.

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National Honey Board Accepting Bee Research Proposals

The following is brought to us by ABJ Extra.   August 27, 2014
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Firestone, Colo., Aug. 25, 2014 – The National Honey Board is requesting proposals for research dealing with honey bee colony production. 

The goal of this research is to help producers maintain colony health while assuring the maintenance of honey quality.  The NHB is encouraging proposals on Varroa research, but will consider proposals dealing with  Acarapis woodi, Nosema ceranae, and small hive beetle; the investigation into the causes and controls of Colony Collapse Disorder; and honey bee nutrition, immunology, and longevity. 

The NHB is open to projects that find new methods of maintaining health, as well as those that combine current methods to increase efficacy rates.  Other projects will be considered and research outside the U.S. is possible. 

The amount of funds available for a particular proposal will depend on the number and merit of proposals finally accepted.  The funds will be available for approved projects for the duration of the calendar year 2015 and may be carried into early 2016 if necessary; the duration of projects being funded should generally not exceed 12 months. 

Proposals must be received at the National Honey Board office by 5:00p.m. Mountain Time, November 17, 2014.  Proposals received after the deadline will not be considered. Instructions on how to submit a research proposal may be found on the NHB website at

The National Honey Board is an industry-funded agriculture promotion group that works to educate consumers about the benefits and uses for honey and honey products through research, marketing and promotional programs.