Honey bee

Bees Have Emotions and Moods. But Do They Have Feelings and Consciousness?

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The honeybee is in deep trouble. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition whose cause isn’t known, has occurred in 42% of colonies within the US, since 2015. CCD occurs when worker bees mysteriously disappear, leaving a queen and her young with no one to tend to them. Invasive species, the loss of habitat, gut parasites, certain pesticides, and other causes have been considered, but nothing is definitive yet.

Research is ongoing. The Obama administration did enact some measures to help protect bee populations which so far remain in place. But they won’t be enough. Without knowing what’s causing CCD, there can be no definitive plan in place to reverse it.

That’s a serious blow to our agricultural industry and could have disastrous consequences for our food supply. 70% of food bearing plants are pollinated by bees. Harvard scientists have a technological fix in place. They’ve developed a type of micro-robot to replace these crucial pollinators, nicknamed robobees. In truth, no one really knows if they can do the job.

What’s more, who will pay for the additional service, which nature normally provides for free? Most likely, the cost will be passed along to the consumer. That means higher food prices, at a time when more and more jobs are disappearing, and wages continue to come back at a crawling pace.

To combat the loss of the honeybee population and perhaps preserve their supply chain and mascot, Cheerios has launched a campaign called #BringBacktheBees. They’ve partnered with a seed company, and have already given away 100 million wildflower seeds to interested parties in the general public. By reestablishing the bees vanishing habitat, they hope to bring these insects back from the brink. Though they’ve already reached their goal, they still have more seeds to give away, should you be interested.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) in France. Getty Images.

Perhaps we’d hear a far greater outcry and more would be invested, if the problem was packaged in a way that pulls at the heartstrings, rather than engages the intellect. Usually, we think of invertebrates as incapable of advanced emotions. Some of the latest experiments with bees however, are challenging this assumption.

These prodigious pollinators show a remarkably advanced understanding of patterns, can anticipate future ones, be taught behaviors, and we now have evidence that they display a range of emotions, even moods. Today, the bee crisis is packaged thusly—these service-providing drones are being snuffed out by a sterilized acronym. Instead, why not portray it as fellow, sentient beings suffering from an epidemic? This is Ebola for bees, people!

Need…

Antibiotics Raise Mortality Risk for Honeybees, Study Finds

Efforts to protect honeybees may be doing more harm than good. Scientists say the antibiotics routinely administered by beekeepers wipe out beneficial bacteria in the bees’ guts, making them vulnerable to other pathogens. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Biology.

These are hard days for honeybees, and apiarists are doing all they can to keep their charge healthy and safe. Twice a year in North America, Asia, and parts of Europe, many beekeepers dose their hives with preventative antibiotics. The drugs may be dusted on the hive or added to the bees’ food to ensure that each insect gets its medicine.

But, as we’re learning in humans, blanket treatment with antibiotics is not really a great option. The more antibiotics we use, the faster pathogens develop antibiotic resistance, and the drugs kill helpful bacteria along with the harmful stuff they’re meant to treat.

Scientists wondered if the same was true for bees. To find out, they brought about 800 bees from long-established hives into the laboratory and split the bees into two groups: the treatment group, marked with a dot of pink paint, and the control group, marked with a…

Cool Jobs: Abuzz for bees

honeybee apiary
honeybee apiary

On a hot September day, Bernardo Niño stands in a yard surrounded by wooden boxes. Each is only a little bit bigger than a shoebox. Stacked one atop the other, they form towers a little more than a meter (about 3 feet) high. Each box holds about 10 screens inside wooden frames. This is where worker bees build honeycombs.

Hundreds of the bugs buzz around the mesh veil that obscures and protects Niño’s face. He calmly lifts a wooden frame from one of the hives. He holds it up to his face to get a closer look. Hundreds more busy worker bees scurry across the screen’s surface.

“There, this one isn’t looking good,” Niño says, pointing to a bee. There’s a tiny red spot on its body about the size of a pinhead. There’s something wrong with its wings, too. Normally long and flat, these wings are crumpled like a wad of paper.

Varroa mite on bee
The little red bump on this honeybee’s body is a varroa mite. These parasites latch onto honeybees and suck their “blood.”

Niño knows his bees. A research technician, he works for a bee research laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Gently, the man pinches the worker bee with two fingers and lifts it off the frame.

The red spot on this bug is a varroa mite. This pest, Varroa destructor, latches onto honeybees and sucks their hemolymph — or insect blood — the same way that ticks or leeches can suck human blood. As a parasite, the mite lives off of its host, often sapping its energy.

Bees weakened by varroa mites are more likely to get other diseases. One of those diseases is called deformed wing virus. Niño points to the bee’s scrunched-up wings. That virus has left this insect unable to fly.

As many as 60,000 honeybees may share a single colony or hive. And an infestation of these mites can put the entire hive in danger. Last year, U.S. beekeepers lost almost half their hives to parasites and diseases. That adds up to a lot of dead bees. Experts worry that threats to bees could imperil many of our food supplies.

Honeybees pollinate at least 90 North American crops. These include apples, almonds, broccoli and carrots. Overall, bees and other pollinators help to produce more than one-third of the world’s food crops.

Honeybees have fascinated people since the dawn of civilization. Prehistoric rock drawings depict people hunting for honey. Chemical traces from ancient clay pots show that Stone Age people used beeswax. Even today, people still rely on the products bees make possible and the services these insects provide.

Given how important bees are to people, it should come as no surprise that scientists are working to protect honeybee health. Some researchers have also begun probing humanity’s long history with these helpful insects in hopes of improving modern medicine. Still others are studying bees to learn more about flight.

Fighting bee disease

As a research technician, Bernardo helps to do experiments that have been designed by a bee scientist. At the University of California, Davis, that scientist happens to be his wife, Elina Niño.

“I’m the boots on the ground, hands in the hive,” he says. “She’s the brains of the operation.”

Niño lab
Together, Bernardo and Elina Niño study health and disease in these California honeybees.

When California beekeepers have a problem, they come to Elina Niño. As head of the state’s beekeeping extension program, she looks for solutions. Extension programs are usually branches of universities that work with a state’s farmers.

“I guess I became an entomologist by accident,” Elina Niño jokes. In college, she had wanted to become a veterinarian. But watching forensic crime shows piqued her interest in bugs. She realized that those detectives sometimes used insects to help crack murder cases.

In graduate school, she studied whether a pesticide used to keep pesky flies off of cows might harm dung beetles on dairy farms. Those beetles are important to keeping a farm’s soil healthy. Soon, she moved from dung beetles to another helpful insect — the honeybee.

California beekeepers told her that the varroa mite has become their biggest problem. They asked for her help.

To protect their hives, beekeepers need to kill the mites. And pesticides containing human-made chemicals could kill those mites. But they also stunted the queen bees’ growth, Niño found. That’s important, because a queen that is small or weak may not reproduce as well as a healthy one. Plus the varroa mites quickly developed resistance to these pesticides so that they…

Honeybees Go ‘Whoop!’ When They Bump Into Each Other

British scientists say startled honeybees emit a teeny “whoop!” noise when jostled or head-butted by another bee. The team described their findings this week in the journal PLOS One.

Bee societies are astoundingly sophisticated and complex; they’re strict hierarchies in which every bee knows its job and its place. To keep this social machine humming along, bees rely on multiple forms of communication: chemical signaling, electrical impulses, gestures (like their waggle dance), and sound.

One of the most common sounds is a quick little wing-buzz used often in crowded colonies. Bees seem to make this noise when they ask another bee for food and as they interfere with another bee’s waggle dance—a move that tells the second bee to change its plans. Because the buzz seems to be used to abort the waggle dance and any foraging that might follow, scientists call the noise the “stop” signal.

To learn…

Can These Tiny Robots Be the Solution to the World’s Bee Problem?

Bees, in case you hadn’t heard, are dying off at an alarming rate—which is a huge problem when you consider the vital part they play in the world’s ecosystems. Bees account for 80 percent of all insect crop pollination, but beekeepers in the United States estimate that between April 2015 and April 2016, they lost 44 percent of their honeybee population. The situation is so dire that engineers from Poland aren’t willing to wait and see if the bee population recovers; they’re already creating a replacement.

The B-Droid is a project led by Rafał Dalewski of the Warsaw University of Technology’s Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering, and its aim is to pollinate plants robotically. This is the fourth year of the project’s existence, and in that time the B-Droid robot has gone through multiple upgrades. The first model operated on wheels with a computer and cameras mounted on…