Honey bees tagged with RFID chips
The mysterious drop in honey bee populations—often called colony collapse disorder for lack of a more specific name—has generated a long list of suspects that includes mites, viruses, malnutrition, and even cell phone radiation. Two new studies published in Science suggest that neonicotinoids, a class of widely used insecticides, may belong at the top of the list.
That an insecticide kills insects like bees is not particularly surprising. Neonicotoinoids have already been partially banned in Italy, Germany, and France for their possible role in colony collapse disorder. Still, it remains one of the most common pesticides: one neonicotoinid alone, imidacloprid, is authorized for use on over 140 crops in 120 countries. Results from the two new studies suggest that even doses that do not kill the bee immediately can have enough ill effect to eventually cause colony collapse.
What’s the News: We’ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disney’s Dumbo, that elephants are afraid of mice. While that idea may not be exactly true (video), elephants do make sure to avoid another tiny critter: bees. Knowing this, zoologists from the University of Oxford loaded fences in Kenya with beehives, in hopes of deterring roaming African elephants from eating or trampling farmers’ crops. Now, two years later, the researchers are reporting in the African Journal of Ecology that the novel barriers are working wondrously and could be a viable option for protecting African croplands.
Queen bee larvae floating in royal jelly
What’s the News: It’s long been known that a female bee’s place in the social order—whether she becomes a worker or a queen—depends not on her genes, but on whether she eats royal jelly. A study published in Nature found that royalactin, a protein found in royal jelly, is responsible for many of the physical differences that distinguish queens from the hoi polloi of the hive—and, surprisingly, that royalactin can even cause fruit flies to develop queen bee-like traits. This finding also shines light on how, at a cellular level, royal jelly turns bees into queens.
The first study of sleep in bees, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the tired bees lag just like sleep-deprived humans do. Too bad bees don’t have coffee. Says lead researcher Barrett Klein:
“When deprived of sleep, humans typically experience a diminished ability to perform a variety of tasks, including communicating as clearly or as precisely. We found that sleep-deprived honey bees also experienced communication problems. They advertised the direction to a food site less precisely to their fellow bees.” [Daily Mail]
So how do you keep bees awake when they don’t need to cram for a calculus final? You make them magnetic. Klein attached a piece of either steel or non-magnetic metal to the bees’ backs. Then all through the night, the researchers swung a magnet over the hive three times a minute–a device they call the “insominator.” This jostled the bees with the magnetic steel on their backs and kept them from sleeping.
UPDATE: Fortune reports today that the lead researcher on this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, had financial ties to Bayer Crop Science—including a research grant—that were not disclosed. Bayer makes pesticides that some beekeepers and researchers have cited as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, and Bromenshenk’s conclusions in this study could benefit the company. Bromenshenk says the money did not go to this project or influence its findings.
Viruses. Mites. Fungi. Genetically modified crops. Inbreeding because of industrial agriculture. They’ve all been floated as possible causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mystery affliction that’s been wiping out honeybees, and by doing so threatening the agricultural industries that rely on those insects. Despite the flood of reports since 2006 about these suspects (and more absurd ones, like cellphone radiation disorienting the bees), the bee die-off continues without a clear explanation.
A study out this week in PLoS One points the finger in a new direction. What’s interesting about this explanation is its contention that there’s tandem foul play at work in CCD—two of the suggested culprits could be working together. But the mystery isn’t solved just yet.
It took Turkish bees to make Israel flow with milk and honey.
When archaeologist Amihai Mazar and colleagues turned up 3,000-year-old remains of hundreds of preserved beehives from the ancient town of Tel Rehov in 2007, it was the first confirmation of the ancient beekeeping suggested by Egyptian paintings and Biblical references. Now, three years later, the team has published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the analysis of the “honeybee workers, drones, pupae, and larvae” found inside those hives. Surprise—they’re from Turkey, hundreds of miles away.
The findings “would imply an incredible amount of commodity trading of bees,” said bee expert Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, editor of American Entomologist. The importation of Italian bees to the United States in the 1860s “was thought to be a big deal then,” he said, “but the Israelis may have been doing this as far back as the first millennium BC” [Los Angeles Times].
This spring, many beekeepers across America opened their hives and found ruin within. At a time when they should have been buzzing with activity, the hives were half-empty, with most adult bees having flown off to die. A new federal survey indicates that 2010 has been the worst year so far for bee deaths. Another study suggests that pesticides might be to blame for the mass wipeout of adult honeybees.
This winter’s die-off was the continuation of a four-year trend. At any given point, beekeepers can expect to see 15 to 20 percent of their bees wiped out due to natural causes or harsh weather. But this alarming phenomenon, termed colony collapse disorder (CCD), has seen millions of bees perish in a mysterious epidemic, with some farmers losing 30 to 90 percent of their hives.
As for the cause of this epidemic, experts say their best guess is that many factors are combining to sicken bees, with the list of culprits including parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, and pesticides. Now a new study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE strengthens the case for pesticides’ culpability.
Scientists have long wondered what exactly is killing bees in hives afflicted by colony collapse disorder (CCD), and now they may have found a clue. Bees in collapsing hives showed evidence of damaged ribosomes, which are crucial to protein production, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The researchers suggest that an onslaught of viruses may be responsible for the cellular damage.
The findings suggest that CCD, which has been blamed on everything from viruses to fungi to pesticides, may be linked to problems with protein production that could make bees more susceptible to these threats. “If your ribosome is compromised, then you can’t respond to pesticides, you can’t respond to fungal infections or bacteria or inadequate nutrition because the ribosome is central to the survival of any organism. You need proteins to survive” [AP], said lead researcher May Berenbaum.
The concern over the declining honeybee population may be exaggerated, according to a controversial new study that shows their numbers are actually increasing globally. Alarm over a world pollination crisis is thus unfounded, say the researchers who analyzed Food and Agriculture Organization data and found that commercial domesticated bee hives have increased 45 percent in the past 50 years, to match growing demand for honey among a growing human population [AFP].
The study, published in Current Biology, says, “the declines in the U.S.A., some European countries and the former U.S.S.R. are more than offset by large increases elsewhere, including Canada, Argentina, Spain and especially China.” The study could help disprove a connection between regional declines, which have been attributed partly to parasitic mites and the general mystery known as colony collapse disorder, and a worldwide trend. But even if global bee populations continue to climb, researchers claim that there won’t be enough of them to go around. The real issue is not the honeybee numbers but the increasing work expected of them [CBC], the researchers argue.
Honeybees have the ability to distinguish and remember visual quantities up to four, according to a new study. Researchers demonstrated that honeybees can match patterns containing the same number of icons, even when the icons are of mixed color and shape. This suggests that honeybees possess a basic number sense that was once thought to be exclusive to vertebrates. Researcher Shaowu Zhang says, “There has been a lot of evidence that vertebrates, such as pigeons, dolphins or monkeys, have some numerical competence but we never expected to find such abilities in insects. So far as these very basic skills go, there is probably no boundary between insects, animals and us” [Daily Mail]
To test the extent of the bees’ number sense, researchers set up a Y-shaped maze with a sweet treat at the end of one arm. In the training phase, bees entered the base of the maze through an entrance marked with either two or three dots. They had to remember this number when the maze forked into two paths— one marked with two dots, the other with three—in order to reach a sugar-water reward [Telegraph]. The 20 or so bees that were trained attained a success rate of 70 percent. Researchers then presented tougher challenges by increasing the number of dots. The bees could also distinguish between three and four dots, but were confused when even more dots were added.