Honey Bees Remember Happy and Sad Times, Scientists Discover

Newsweek (Tech & Science) By Aristos Georgiou September 10, 2019

While the brains of honey bees are tiny compared to those of humans, the insects are capable of some surprisingly advanced thinking. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences has now cast new light on the insects' cognitive abilities.

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that honey bees can remember positive and negative experiences—such as taking care of their young or fending off an enemy. These memories are then stored in specific areas of their brains, according to how good or bad the experience was.

Scientists have long known that vertebrates—animals with tail bones—like ourselves are capable of storing memories of pleasure and pain in distinct brain areas such as this. However, this has never been documented before in the minds of bees.

"We wanted to know whether bees, with a tiny brain, devote different parts of it to processing social information that is either negative or positive," Gene Robinson, an author of the study from Urbana-Champaign's Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, told Newsweek.

"We found that bees do devote different parts of their brain to processing social information that is either negative or positive," Robinson said. "This discovery is striking given how small their brains are; we did not expect such spatial segregation in the processing of social information of different valence."

Valence is a term used in psychology when discussing emotions to refer to the intrinsic positivity or negativity of an event, object or situation.

In the study, the researchers looked at regions of the honey bee brain that's present in other invertebrates, referred to as "mushroom bodies," which are associated with sensory processing, learning and memory.

They compared the expression of genes following aggressive or collaborative social interactions, demonstrating that distinct compartments of these mushroom bodies were specifically activated depending on the valence of the interaction—in other words, whether the interaction was harmful or beneficial.

"We used genes that respond very quickly to new stimuli as markers to see which parts of the brain are activated for each type of stimulus," Robinson said.

According to the scientists, the latest study provides new insight into animal cognition.

"These findings can help us better understand 'biological embedding,' or how social information 'gets under the skin' to affect subsequent behavior," he said. "Biological embedding is an important issue in understanding health and well-being in humans."

Furthermore, because the type of memory that the researchers documented is well-established in the brains of vertebrates, the latest findings demonstrate a link between vertebrate and invertebrate cognition despite the two animal groups diverging in evolutionary terms around 600 million years ago.

Apis Mellifera on August 10, 2019 in Girona, Spain.MANUEL MEDIR/GETTY IMAGES

Apis Mellifera on August 10, 2019 in Girona, Spain.MANUEL MEDIR/GETTY IMAGES

Improved Regulation Needed As Pesticides Found to Affect Genes in Bees

EurekAlert From: Queen Mary University of London March 6, 2019

Bumblebee Colony Credit: TJ Colgan

Bumblebee Colony Credit: TJ Colgan

Scientists are urging for improved regulation on pesticides after finding that they affect genes in bumblebees, according to research led by Queen Mary University of London in collaboration with Imperial College London.

For the first time, researchers applied a biomedically inspired approach to examine changes in the 12,000 genes that make up bumblebee workers and queens after pesticide exposure.

The study, published in Molecular Ecology, shows that genes which may be involved in a broad range of biological processes are affected.

They also found that queens and workers respond differently to pesticide exposure and that one pesticide they tested had much stronger effects than the other did.

Other recent studies, including previous work by the authors, have revealed that exposure even to low doses of these neurotoxic pesticides is detrimental to colony function and survival as it impairs bee behaviours including the ability to obtain pollen and nectar from flowers and the ability to locate their nests.

This new approach provides high-resolution information about what is happening at a molecular level inside the bodies of the bumblebees.

Some of these changes in gene activity may represent the mechanisms that link intoxification to impaired behaviour.

Lead author of the study Dr Yannick Wurm, from Queen Mary University of London, said: "Governments had approved what they thought were 'safe' levels but pesticides intoxicate many pollinators, reducing their dexterity and cognition and ultimately survival. This is a major risk because pollinators are declining worldwide yet are essential for maintaining the stability of the ecosystem and for pollinating crops.

"While newer pesticide evaluation aims to consider the impact on behaviour, our work demonstrates a highly sensitive approach that can dramatically improve how we evaluate the effects of pesticides."

The researchers exposed colonies of bumblebees to either clothianidin or imidacloprid at field-realistic concentrations while controlling for factors including colony social environment and worker age.

They found clothianidin had much stronger effects than imidacloprid - both of which are in the category of 'neonicotinoid' pesticides and both of which are still used worldwide although they were banned in 2018 for outdoor use by the European Union.

For worker bumblebees, the activity levels of 55 genes were changed by exposure to clothianidin with 31 genes showing higher activity levels while the rest showed lower activity levels after exposure.

This could indicate that their bodies are reorienting resources to try to detoxify, which the researchers suspect is what some of the genes are doing. For other genes, the changes could represent the intermediate effects of intoxification that lead to affected behaviour.

The trend differed in queen bumblebees as 17 genes had changed activity levels, with 16 of the 17 having higher activity levels after exposure to the clothianidin pesticide.

Dr Joe Colgan, first author of the study and also from Queen Mary University of London, said: "This shows that worker and queen bumblebees are differently wired and that the pesticides do not affect them in the same way. As workers and queens perform different but complementary activities essential for colony function, improving our understanding of how both types of colony member are affected by pesticides is vital for assessing the risks these chemicals pose."

The researchers believe that the approach they have demonstrated must now be applied more broadly. This will provide detailed information on how pesticides differ in the effects they have on beneficial species, and why species may differ in their susceptibility.

Dr Colgan said: "We examined the effects of two pesticides on one species of bumblebee. But hundreds of pesticides are authorised, and their effects are likely to substantially differ across the 200,000 pollinating insect species which also include other bees, wasps, flies, moths, and butterflies."

Dr Wurm added: "Our work demonstrates that the type of high-resolution molecular approach that has changed the way human diseases are researched and diagnosed, can also be applied to beneficial pollinators. This approach provides an unprecedented view of how bees are being affected by pesticides and works at large scale. It can fundamentally improve how we evaluate the toxicity of chemicals we put into nature."


Research paper: 'Caste- and pesticide-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticide exposure on gene expression in bumblebees'. Thomas J. Colgan, Isabel K. Fletcher, Andres N. Arce, Richard J. Gill, Ana Ramos Rodrigues, Eckart Stolle, Lars Chittka and Yannick Wurm. Molecular Ecology.


Bees Have Brains for Basic Maths: Study

RMIT University By Gosia Kaszubska February 7, 2019

Researchers have found bees can do basic mathematics, in a discovery that expands our understanding of the relationship between brain size and brain power.

Building on their finding that honeybees can understand the concept of zero, Australian and French researchers set out to test whether bees could perform arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction.

Solving maths problems requires a sophisticated level of cognition, involving the complex mental management of numbers, long-term rules and short term working memory.

The revelation that even the miniature brain of a honeybee can grasp basic mathematical operations has implications for the future development of Artificial Intelligence, particularly in improving rapid learning.

Led by researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the new study showed bees can be taught to recognise colours as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction, and that they can use this information to solve arithmetic problems.

RMIT’s Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said numerical operations like addition and subtraction are complex because they require two levels of processing.

“You need to be able to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, while mentally manipulating a set of given numbers in your short-term memory,” Dyer said.

“On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognise plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids.

“Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected.

“If maths doesn’t require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems.”

There is considerable debate around whether animals know or can learn complex number skills.

Many species can understand the difference between quantities and use this to forage, make decisions and solve problems. But numerical cognition, such as exact number and arithmetic operations, requires a more sophisticated level of processing.

Previous studies have shown some primates, birds, babies and even spiders can add and/or subtract. The new research, published today in Science Advances, adds bees to that list. 

A school for bees? How the honeybees were trained

The experiment, conducted by PhD researcher Scarlett Howard in the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) at RMIT, involved training individual honeybees to visit a Y-shaped maze.

The bees received a reward of sugar water when they made a correct choice in the maze, and received a bitter-tasting quinine solution if the choice was incorrect.

Honeybees will go back to a place if the location provides a good source of food, so the bees returned repeatedly to the experimental set-up to collect nutrition and continue learning.

When a bee flew into the entrance of the maze they would see a set of elements, between 1 to 5 shapes. The shapes were either blue, which meant the bee had to add, or yellow, which meant the bee had to subtract.

After viewing the initial number, the bee would fly through a hole into a decision chamber where it could choose to fly to the left or right side of the maze.

One side had an incorrect solution to the problem and the other side had the correct solution of either plus or minus one. The correct answer was changed randomly throughout the experiment to avoid bees learning to visit just one side of the maze.

At the beginning of the experiment, bees made random choices until they could work out how to solve the problem. Eventually, over 100 learning trials that took 4 to 7 hours, bees learned that blue meant +1, while yellow meant -1. The bees could then apply the rules to new numbers.

Scarlett Howard said the ability to do basic maths has been vital in the flourishing of human societies historically, with evidence that the Egyptians and Babylonians used arithmetic around 2000BC.

“These days, we learn as children that a plus symbol means you need to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol means you subtract,” she said.

“Our findings show that the complex understanding of maths symbols as a language is something that many brains can probably achieve, and helps explain how many human cultures independently developed numeracy skills.”

The research, with collaborators from University of Toulouse and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics at RMIT, is published today ("Numerical cognition in honeybees enables addition and subtraction", Science Advances, DOI 10.1126/sciadv.aav0961).

Video: Kiralee Greenhalgh


Here’s How Clumps Of Honeybees May Survive Blowing In The Wind

Science News    By Emily Conover     September 17, 2018

In lab tests, the insects adjust their positions to flatten out the cluster and keep it stable.

BEE BALL Certain types of bees tend to arrange into clusters on tree branches. Bees move around within a clump to maintain its stability, a new study finds.

A stiff breeze is no match for a clump of honeybees, and now scientists are beginning to understand why.

When scouting out a new home, the bees tend to cluster together on tree branches or other surfaces, forming large, hanging clumps which help keep the insects safe from the elements. To keep the clump together, individual honeybees change their positions, fine-tuning the cluster’s shape based on external forces, a new study finds. That could help bees deal with such disturbances as wind shaking the branches.

A team of scientists built a movable platform with a caged queen in the center, around which honeybees clustered in a hanging bunch. When the researchers shook the platform back and forth, bees moved upward, flattening out the clump and lessening its swaying, the team reports September 17 in Nature Physics.

The insects, the scientists hypothesized, might be moving based on the strain — how much each bee is pulled apart from its neighbors as the cluster swings. So the researchers made a computer simulation of a bee cluster to determine how the bees decided where to move.

When the simulated bees were programmed to move to areas of higher strain, the simulation reproduced the observed flattening of the cluster, the researchers found. As a bee moves to a higher-strain region, the insect must bear more of the burden. So by taking one for the team, the bees ensure the clump stays intact.

O. Peleg et al. Collective mechanical adaptation of honeybee swarms. Nature Physics. Published online September 17, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41567-018-0262-1.


What Turns Bees Into Killer Bees?

Sciencemag.org     By Elizabeth Pennis      June 15, 2018

(Note:  "It is definitely worth keeping gentle behaving bees.  So much more pleasant to work with.  Just one behavior challenged hive in the apiary makes them all crazy." ~Bill Lewis, Owner Bill's Bees, 2014 President, California State Beekeepers Association, Past President, Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association.)

Brain protein fragments spur honey bees to be more aggressive. SOLVIN ZANKL/MINDEN PICTURESBiochemists have tracked down the brain chemicals that make so-called killer bees such ferocious fighters. The compounds, which seem to be present in higher levels in the much-feared Africanized honey bee, can make less aggressive bees turn fierce, according to a new study. The compounds may also play a role in aggression in other animals—indeed, they’ve already been shown to do so in fruit flies and mice.

“This is another example of how behavior evolves in different species by using common molecular mechanisms,” says Gene Robinson, an entomologist and director of the University of Illinois’s Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in Urbana, who was not involved in the work.

Honey bees are incredibly territorial, fighting to the death to defend their hive with painful stings. But killer bees—hybrids of the relatively docile European strain of honey bee and a more aggressive African relative—are particularly fierce. The hybrids emerged after African bees were imported to Brazil in the 1950s. By the 1980s, they had spread north to the United States, outgunning resident honey bees along the way. Their massive attacks have killed more than 1000 people.

Mario Palma, a biochemist at São Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil, who studies social behavior in bees, wanted to understand the basis of this aggression. So he and his colleagues swung a black leather ball in front of an Africanized bee hive and collected the bees whose stingers got stuck in the ball during the attack. They also collected bees that remained in the hive. They froze both sets, sliced up their brains, and analyzed the slices with a sophisticated technique that identifies proteins and keeps track of where they are in each slice. The analysis revealed that bee brains have two proteins that—in the aggressive bees—quickly broke into pieces to form a so-called “neuropeptide,” they report this week in the Journal of Proteome Research.

Palma and his colleagues already knew that bee brains had these two proteins, allatostatin and tachykinin. “The surprise came out when we identified some very simple neuropeptides, which were produced in a few seconds” after his team swung the ball and triggered the attack, Palma says. The bees that remained in the hive did not make these neuropeptides, he reports. And when his team injected these molecules into young, less aggressive bees, they “became aggressive like older individuals.”

Researchers have found these molecules in other insects, where they seem to regulate feeding and digestion. But few had associated them with “fight” behavior, says Palma, who adds that they also increase the production of energy and alarm chemicals. They could also stimulate the nerve cells in bees needed to coordinate the stinging attack. “There is a fine biochemical regulation in the honey bee brain,” he says.

Palma’s preliminary studies indicate that Africanized honey bees produce more of these neuropeptides than other honey bees do. His team hopes to eventually use these insights to develop a way to protect people from these killer bees, perhaps through a spray or chemical plug that can be applied to a hive.

The studies may also further the understanding of how the production of how various neuropeptides regulate behavior not just in insects, but also in people, Palma suggests. “In neuroscience, there is still a big gap between understanding how molecular pathways and neural circuits work together to regulate behavior,” Robinson says. This work presents “a great way to bridge this gap.”


Related (posted June 9, 2018):



Bee Research May Redefine Understanding Of Intelligence

The Japan Times     By Rowan Hooper    November 28, 2017

Honeybees have the ability to tell other bees in the hive where flowers bearing nectar and pollen are located. | ISTOCKThe brain of a honeybee is tiny — the size of a pin head — and contains less than a million neurons, compared to the 85 billion in our own brains. Yet with that sliver of brain, bees can do some extraordinary things. They can count and interpret abstract patterns. Most famously, bees have the ability to communicate the location of flowers to other bees in the hive.

When a foraging bee has found a source of nectar and pollen, it can let others in the hive know by performing a peculiar figure-of-eight dance called the waggle dance. The information contained in the waggle dance was first decoded by Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch, who picked up a Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1973. The dance in itself is not as complex as true language, but it’s remarkable in that it’s a symbolic form of communication.

Recently, Hiroyuki Ai at Fukuoka University has made another breakthrough in our understanding of this extraordinary behavior, by investigating the neurons that allow bees to process the dance information. Bees get information from hearing the dance, as well as seeing it. During the dance, bees vibrate their abdomens as they run in a figure-of-eight pattern. These vibrations send out pulses that are picked up by an organ on the antennae called Johnston’s organ. Johnston’s organs are equivalent to our ears.

Ai maintains hives of honeybees on the campus of Fukuoka University. (Incidentally, he says they have monthly meetings to discuss their research with students, after which they have tea parties and eat the honey produced by their bees.) Until recently, there has been very little understanding of how the bee brain deciphers the information encoded in the waggle dance. The reason, he says, is that bees only perform the dance in the hive, and it’s difficult to get them to do it in the laboratory.

It makes sense that the bees pay attention to sound. “In a dark hive, they can’t see the dance,” Ai says. “Honeybees hear the dance.” Honeybees are very sensitive to vibration, so mimicking the noise of a waggle dance can cause bees to journey to the same place indicated by a real dance.

Ai and his team recorded the vibrations made by the waggle dance, simulated the noises and applied the vibrations to the antennae of bees in the lab. This allowed them to track which neurons fired in response to the waggle dance, and follow their route in the insect brain.

The team discovered three different types of “interneurons.” These are connecting neurons that allow communication between different parts of the brain. Ai, along with team members that include Thomas Wachtler at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, and Hidetoshi Ikeno of the University of Hyogo in Himeji, traced the path of interneurons in the part of the brain concerned with processing sound. They found that the way the interneurons turn on and off is key to encoding information contained in the waggle dance about distance.

This mechanism of turning on and off — in neuroscience it is called “disinhibition” — is similar to one used in other insects. For example, it’s how crickets listen to the songs of other crickets as well as how moths assess the distance from the source of a smell their antennae have picked up. Ai and his team suggest there is a common neural basis in the way these different species do things.

Communication is the key to forming complex societies. It’s what allows the honeybee to perform such extraordinary behaviors. And, naturally, language is a key factor in human success. Intelligence is required for both these things, so does this mean honeybees, with a minuscule brain, are intelligent? It’s a tricky quality to define. One attempt, from the American Psychological Association Task Force on Intelligence, defines it as the ability “to adapt efficiently to the environment and to learn from experience.” Bees are able to do this.

There are six different kinds of dance, for example, and bees are able to learn and change their behavior accordingly. If bees encounter a dead bee at a flower, they change the pattern of dancing they perform back at the hive, suggesting they can perform a risk/benefit analysis.

Both bee and human language are a consequence of intelligence, and research such as Ai’s forces us to rethink what we mean by intelligence. “There might be a common brain mechanism between humans and honeybees,” he says.

What it certainly shows is that you don’t need a big brain to be smart. As with many things, Charles Darwin realized this, writing in 1871: “The brain of an ant is one of the most marvellous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man.”


The Threat of Robbing

Perfect Bee Facebook Page    April 11, 2017

The following is from the Perfect Bee Facebook Page: "At this time of year beekeepers install new hives and overwintered colonies start exploring again, after the winter cluster has worked its magic. In the next few weeks there will be a focused effort by our bees to build up their numbers.

But for the smaller or weaker colony there is another challenge. A good example is the installation of a package of bees. A common and effective way for new beekeepers to establish their first hives, a package results in around 10,000 starting out in a new home.

But 10,000 still represents a small colony. While the numbers expand, there's always the chance of robbing. A colony may not have the capability to successfully defend the hive.

Our article "The Threat of Robbing" looks at why and how robbing occurs and what steps you, as a beekeeper, can take to help your bees protect their space."

Read text and view videos at Perfet Bee's Blog post by Mark Williams: "The Threat of Robbing."

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


Bees Learn While They Sleep, And That Means They Might Dream

 A new study suggests that bees can store information in long-term memory 
while they sleep, just like humans do when we dream

For all our obvious differences, humans and honeybees share some common threads within the fabric of life.

We are both social species. While humans speak and write to communicate, honeybees dance to one another; waggling their bodies for specific durations at angles that indicate where the best pockets of nectar or pollen are to be found outside the hustle and bustle of the nest.

But only forager bees – the eldest of several types of honeybee castes – do this. Just like in human populations, the honeybee colony is divided into different sectors of work. There are cleaners, nurses, security guards, not to mention collection bees whose sole job is to cache nectar in comb. 

Different honeybees do different jobs in the colony (Credit:Pete Oxford/naturepl.com) 

Different honeybees do different jobs in the colony (Credit:Pete Oxford/naturepl.com)


As they age, honeybees are promoted through a diverse career, from waste disposal to the more familiar forager.

But it is not all work, work, work. Busy bees have to sleep, too.

Similar to our circadian rhythm, honeybees sleep between five and eight hours a day. And, in the case of forager bees, this occurs in day-night cycles, with more rest at night when darkness prevents their excursions for pollen and nectar.

But, given that a hive's primary purpose is productivity and yield, why should a large portion of the population seemingly waste up to a third of the day resting? What are the benefits of sleep?

Over the last few years, a handful of scientists have started to uncover why honeybees need to rest; their findings adding to the list of threads that we share. 

What goes on inside that head? (Credit: Kim Taylor/naturepl.com) 

What goes on inside that head? (Credit: Kim Taylor/naturepl.com) 

Ever since Aristotle studied the monarchy of the honeybee colony in the 3rd Century BC, the species Apis mellifera has been studied by generations of dedicated scientists, each able to discover something entirely new.

"The bee's life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water," wrote Karl von Frisch, the German Nobel laureate who decoded their waggle dances, in 1950.

It was in 1983 that a researcher called Walter Kaiser made a new discovery: that honeybees slept. As he watched through his observation hive, Kaiser noted how a bee's legs would first start to flex, bringing its head to the floor. Its antennae would stop moving. In some cases, a bee would fall over sideways, as if intoxicated by tiredness. Many bees held each other's legs as they slept.

Kaiser's study was the first record of sleep in an invertebrate. But it was far from the last. The scuttle of cockroaches, the flutter of fruit flies, and the rhythmic undulations of jellyfishes all have temporary periods of quiescence. 

Even jellyfish seem to sleep (Credit: Aflo/naturepl.com) 

Even jellyfish seem to sleep (Credit: Aflo/naturepl.com)  

"The evidence appears to align with this idea that sleep is shared across all animals," says Barrett Klein, a sleep biologist from the University of Wisconsin Wisconsin–La Crosse. "There's no universally-accepted exception."

Being so prevalent, sleep seems to be a very important part of complex life. To understand why honeybees sleep, a long line of scientists has been keeping forager bees up at night. How do they function sans sleep? Not well, it seems.

For one, they cannot communicate properly. Instead of performing their waggle dances with incredible accuracy, sleepy bees become sloppy. Their interpretive dances fail to translate the direction of a profitable food source.

And since their nest mates use this information as a guide for their foraging trips, they are likely to be sent slightly astray, wasting time and energy on the wing. The whole colony suffers. 

It's not all work, work, work (Credit: MD Kern Palo Alto JR Museum/naturepl.com) 

It's not all work, work, work (Credit: MD Kern Palo Alto JR Museum/naturepl.com) 

Further, sleep-deprived honeybees find it difficult to return to the hive when visiting fresh flower patches, spending more time reorienting themselves with the sky and surrounding landmarks as their compass. Many even get lost and never return, so their rest becomes much more permanent.

Without a good night's sleep, then, honeybees start to forget the activities that should be second nature to them. And in a study released in 2015, Randolf Menzel and his colleagues from the Free University of Berlin provided a possible explanation as to why this might be.

As is well-documented in humans, deep sleep (known as slow-wave sleep) consolidates memories, transferring them from short-term to long-term memory. Menzel and his team wanted to know whether the same was true for the humble honeybee.

First, they had to teach them something new; only then could they test the quality of their short-term to long-term memory transfer. They chose a tried-and-tested protocol, developed by Menzel himself in 1983.

When feeding, honeybees exhibit a stereotyped behaviour: sticking out their long tubular mouthparts, or proboscis, to slurp up dinner. But, by presenting honeybees with a specific odour and burst of heat as they feed, this proboscis extension response (PER) can be elicited even when there is no food available.


Bees have busy lives (Credit: Kim Taylor/naturepl.com) 

Bees have busy lives (Credit: Kim Taylor/naturepl.com) 

It is the honeybee equivalent of the famous Pavlov's dog response. Rather than a bell, the bees associate the odour-heat combo with food and try to feed.

Only it is much easier to condition bees than dogs. Honeybees are quick learners, associating the odour and heat with food after one to three trials. After that, PER happened without the need for a reward.

"If you work with them, you realise very quickly that they are very smart," says Hanna Zwaka, one of the study's authors. "They are also very sweet to watch while they are learning."

Once conditioned, the bees were allowed a full night's sleep within their own personalised plastic tube. As they slept in solitude, the team exposed some of the honeybees to the conditioned odour-heat combo during different sleep stages, ranging from light sleep to deep sleep, allowing any activity in their brains to be further stimulated.

As a control, a separate group of bees were exposed to a neutral odour – paraffin oil – that would not reactivate any conditioned responses.

When the honeybees woke the next day, the memory tests could begin. Did the bees with the night-time reminders hold on to their conditioned response – sticking out their proboscis – for longer than those without? 

When honeybees wake, do they remember? (Credit: Phil Savoie/naturepl.com) 

When honeybees wake, do they remember? (Credit: Phil Savoie/naturepl.com) 

Yes, but only when the odour and heat were presented in the deep-sleep stage, just like we would expect for a sleep-reinforced memory in humans. Presenting the odour and heat during other, lighter stages of sleep offered no advantage in memory retention.

Although their bodies might be inactive during deep-sleep, honeybee brains do not seem to be. The previous day's activities are reactivated, stabilising fragile memories and converting them into a more permanent form that can be accessed the next day – or perhaps even further in the future.

In sleeping rats, memory consolidation has been shown to work like replaying a tape: any learned responses, such as completing a complex maze, are repeated over and over again in the same sequence that they occurred; right turn by wrong turn, neuron by neuron in the brain. 

Sleeping rats are still learning (Credit BonkersAboutScience/Alamy) (Credit: Credit BonkersAboutScience/Alamy) 

Sleeping rats are still learning (Credit BonkersAboutScience/Alamy) 

Menzel and colleagues' study adds some tantalising evidence that the same might be occurring in bees.

"It's a beautifully conducted study with regard to memory," says Klein. But he has some caveats: "Whether or not the results relate to deep sleep is up for discussion." No study has yet clearly demonstrated stages or depth of sleep in insects, he says; only promising hints and suggestions.

Both labs hope to replicate these results with more streamlined, and telling, methods.

With the possibility of memory reactivation in the bees' sleepy heads, Menzel's work begs the question of whether honeybees dream.  

Do bees dream of these? (Credit: Sunny_mjx/CC by 2.0) 

Do bees dream of these? (Credit: Sunny_mjx/CC by 2.0)  

In humans, dreams were thought to be a phenomenon of REM sleep, thus limiting the possibility of dreaming to mammals, birds, and (more recently) reptiles; animal groups that exhibit similar eye-fluttering stages of sleep. 

But this is not the case. Over recent decades, studies have revealed that dreaming can also occur during slow-wave sleep, the analogue of honeybees' deep-sleep.

When woken from slow-wave sleep, people often recall basic non-narrative dreams such as a house, faces, or a pet. "[Therefore], if bees dream at all, it would be very basic dreaming," says Zwaka. "A special odour, for example. Or a colour of flowers, like yellow or blue."

The magic well of bee biology is still nowhere near empty.


(NOTE: Even though this article by Alex Riley is dated June 25, 2016, it came through our LACBA Facebook feed today from the Western Apiculture Society and the American Beekeeping Federation - it is too amazing, informative, and has such beautiful images of bees, I simply had to share it with all of you.)

Bees Use a Variety of Senses and Memory of Previous Experiences to Forage for Pollen, Research Suggests

CATCH THE BUZZ-Bee Culture    By Elizabeth Nicholls    November 28, 2016

A honey bee foraging for pollen. Credit: Dr. Elizabeth NichollsBees use a variety of senses and memory of previous experiences when deciding where to forage for pollen, research by the University of Exeter suggests.

The researchers believe pollen-collecting bees do not base their foraging decisions on taste alone, but instead make an “overall sensory assessment” of their experience at a particular flower.

Bees typically do not eat pollen when they collect it from flowers, but carry it back to the nest via special “sacs” on their legs or hairs on their body.

This makes it difficult to understand how bees judge whether the pollen a flower produces is nutritious enough for their young.

Indeed, researchers have been puzzled for a long time as to what exactly bees look for when they collect pollen from flowers.

Co-author Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, expert in insect neuroethology at Exeter’s Center for Research in Animal Behavior, said: “It seems that bees don’t just respond to a single nutritional compound in pollen, such as crude protein content, but to a range of sensory cues in pollen and flowers.

“They also form memories for locations and types of flowers that they have visited which affect their foraging decisions.

“We need more research that considers the behavior and neurobiology of bees to understand when and why they prefer some plants and some pollen over others.

“A breakthrough in this area could advance our efforts in both biodiversity conservation and crop production.”

The review, published in the journal Functional Ecology, examines existing evidence on how bees use their senses, previous experience and — in the case of social bees — feedback from the nest to decide where to gather pollen.

First author Dr Elizabeth Nicholls, a former PhD student at the University of Exeter and now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, said: “Our review is unique in considering pollen foraging from an individual bee’s perspective, asking which senses bees use to decide which flowers are worth visiting.

“In our review we suggest that although bees may taste pollen during collection and use this nutritional information to guide their choices, they are also likely to pay attention to the strong odor and visual appearance of both pollen and the flower itself.

“For bees that live together in colonies, information passed on from the other bees in the nest, either via chemical cues or even special ‘dances’, may also be important in influencing their pollen-collecting behavior.”

The University of Exeter is a major hub for bee and pollination research and currently advertising several postgraduate research projects.


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.”


Head-Banging Bees

Harvard University   Published on Feb 3, 2016

While researching how bees native to Australia pollinate tomato plants, Harvard scientists stumbled onto a surprising find – to shake pollen out of the cone-shaped flowers, Australian blue-banded bees actually bang their heads against them at the headache-inducing rate of 350 times per second. (Banging Blue Banded Bee)


Researchers Determine How Groups Make Decisions

PHYS.ORG    September 18, 2015

Temnothorax rugatulus. Credit: Arizona State UniversityFrom Beats headphones' rise to prominence or a political candidate's surge in the polls to how ants and bees select a new nest site, decisions emerging from groups frequently occur without a leader.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed a  that explains how groups make collective decisions when no single member of the group has access to all possible information or the ability to make and communicate a final decision. Published in Science Advances, the de-centralized decision-making model shows how positive feedback during the exploration process proves useful for making good and quick decisions...

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-09-groups-decisions.html#jCp

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.

Read at: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/not-bad-science/2015/04/20/inside-the-wonderful-world-of-bee-cognition-where-were-at-now/


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Worker Bees 'Know' When to Invest in Their Reproductive Future

Science Daily    Source: Springer Science + Business Media    August 20, 2014

When a colony of honeybees grows to about 4,000 members, it triggers an important first stage in its reproductive cycle: the building of a special type of comb used for rearing male reproductive, called drones. A team of experts from the Department of Neurobiology and Behaviour at Cornell University, led by Michael Smith, studied what starts the reproductive cycle of honeybee colonies. The results are published in Springer's journal Naturwissenschaften -- The Science of Nature. 

Reproduction isn't always a honeybee colony's top priority. Early in a colony's development, its primary focus is on survival and growth. When the colony reaches a certain stage, its workers start investing in reproduction. The first step in this whole reproductive process is building cells of drone comb, the special comb made of large cells in which drones are reared.

Drones are male honeybees that develop from unfertilized eggs. Their sole purpose in a colony is to mate with virgin queens from other colonies, thereby spreading the genes of the colony that produced the successful drones. Virgin queens in turn need to mate with drones before they can lay fertilized eggs that will become workers. Queens will mate with over a dozen drones during their single nuptial flight, after which they are stocked with sperm for life.

Smith and his team were puzzled about precisely which colony features kick-start this key process of building drone comb. Is it the number of workers in the colony? Is it the total area of worker comb in the colony? Is it the amount of brood in the colony? Or perhaps it's the size of the colony's honey stores? The Cornell University researchers therefore set out to carefully manipulate each of these features in different groups of colonies, while keeping the other colony features identical.

They found that while every colony built worker comb (non-reproductive comb), not every colony built drone comb (reproductive comb). In fact, only an increase in the number of workers stimulated the workers to start constructing drone comb. This was seen whenever colonies contained 4,000 or more worker bees.

The researchers were still left wondering about precisely how an individual worker bee 'knows' how many other workers there are in its colony. Smith and his team speculate that this might have to do with how crowded individuals feel while working side-by-side in the hive. They are currently engaged in further research to shed more light on this mystery.

"Colonies with more workers built a greater proportion of drone comb, but colonies with more comb, more brood, or more honey stores, did not do so," Smith summarizes. "We estimate that a colony needs approximately 4,000 workers to invest in building drone comb."

The researchers believe that their findings are also relevant to other social systems in which a group's members must adjust their behaviour in relationship to the group's size.

Journal Reference: Michael L. Smith, Madeleine M. Ostwald, J. Carter Loftus, Thomas D. Seeley. A critical number of workers in a honeybee colony triggers investment in reproductionNaturwissenschaften, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1215-x

Read at... http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140820091609.htm

Beehive Air-Conditioning

New York Times  Science   July 7, 2014

Q. Why are honeybees drinking water from my birdbath?

A. The birdbath may be closer to the hive than a natural source of water, said Cole Gilbert, a Cornell entomologist. Or the bees may have discovered it while foraging for nectar and pollen, then returned when conditions in the colony changed.

Bees collect water from many nonpure sources — even urine, by one report, Dr. Gilbert said — but prefer pure water, like that in a birdbath, when specifically foraging for it.

The most important factor in a hive’s water requirements is temperature control in the area where larvae are raised.

Water is collected by the same means as nectar, by sucking through the proboscis, Dr. Gilbert said. It is stored in the honey stomach, a pouch where nectar is also stored. “When foragers return to the hive, the water is regurgitated and passed by trophallaxis, a fancy word for mouth to mouth, from the forager bee to a younger hive bee,” he said.

While the hive bee smears droplets on the comb, other bees hang out near the hive entrance, fanning their wings to increase airflow through the hive. The vaporizing droplets remove heat.

When extra water is needed, a hive bee signals to a forager bee by refusing to take her nectar for some time. When it is eventually accepted, the forager bee looks for water on her next foray.


Evolution of Bee Behavior: York University Research

TORONTO– Worker bees have become a highly skilled and specialized work force because the genes that determine their behaviour are shuffled frequently, helping natural selection to build a better bee, research from York University suggests.

The embargoed study, to be published October 15 at 3pm EST in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), sheds light on how worker bees – who are sterile – evolved charismatic and cooperative behaviours such as nursing young bees, collecting food for the colony, defending it against intruders, and dancing to communicate the location of profitable flowers to nestmates.

When York University researchers examined the honey bee genome, they discovered that the genes associated with worker behaviour were found in areas of the genome that have the highest rate of recombination. Recombination represents a shuffling of the genetic deck: recombination in the ovaries of a queen shuffles the chromosomes she inherited from her parents. As a result, the queen's female offspring are likely to inherit mosaic chromosomes with different combinations of mutations, says Biology Professor Amro Zayed, whose lab conducted the research. 

Recombination allows natural selection to act on specific mutations without regard to neighbouring mutations.

"If I'm a good rower in a dragon boat with 49 poor rowers, I am going to lose all of my races. But if teams were shuffled after every race, I'll likely have a better chance of winning. I may even get to be in a boat with 49 good rowers just like myself," says Zayed. "The same thing happens with mutations on a chromosome. Recombination makes the evolutionary fate of mutations independent of their surrounding neighbours, which enhances the process of natural selection.".

The team believes that they have solved one of the mysteries of the honey bee's genome, says postdoctoral research associate Clement Kent, lead author on the study.

"The honey bee has the highest rates of recombination in animals – ten times higher than humans. Our study shows that this high degree of genetic shuffling has turned on the evolutionary faucet in parts of the bee genome responsible for orchestrating worker behaviour," says Kent. "This can allow natural selection to increase the fitness of honey bee colonies, which live or die based on how well their workers 'behave'."

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