Good public sanitation is a mark of advanced civilizations. Humans have dealt with the “bathroom problem” mainly by burying, flushing, or otherwise sequestering our waste products in some far off, out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. In this way, we’re similar to mole rats that build specialized “latrine chambers” in their underground habitats. A new paper in Animal Behavior examines alternative ways to handle the sanitation issue, developed by some of the world’s most sophisticated societies: eusocial insects like ants, bees, and wasps. One strategy involves something known as the “blind gut.”
Colonies of eusocial insects can contain millions of individuals. Because dropping feces at will would cause a serious toxic hazard, many species have developed a way of holding it in for a really long time. The youngsters, or larva, of the order hymenoptera, have a “blind gut,” meaning one that does not connect the mouth with the anus. Essentially, this means their waste products are trapped inside their bodies for weeks to months, or the entire duration of the larval stage. Only when they pupate (when the larva changes into the adult form), does their waste get expelled in one big, stinky pellet known as the meconium. In the honeybee, the meconium is expelled during its first flight out of the nest. (Imagine human teenagers holding it all in until right before they leave home for college…) After the meconium is quickly disposed of, the adult insects develop a normal continuous gut.
The news this week is all about financial trouble, and even science can’t escape.
Often when a species is in trouble, their plight tugs only at the heartstrings of people who want to save them; polar bears are of little practical use to us. But colony collapse disorder, which has been wrecking bee populations around the world, goes right to our wallets. In a new study, French and German scientists calculated that pollinators are worth about $217 billion to the world economy, which would be lost if bees and other pollinators keep disappearing.
It’s a hard choice, deciding whether ants or bees are Discoblog’s favorite kind of wickedly intelligent insect. But if anything could sway the proceedings one way or the other, it’s this: Bees know how to do the wave.
A study published today in PLoS One suggests that giant honeybees have a kind of collective intelligence that allows them to fend off attacking hornets—a valuable skill, because the bees live in open nests. A team led by Gerald Kastberger of the University of Graz in Austria watched video of 450 examples of “shimmering”—a group of bees flipping their abdomens up and down to create a dazzling visual effect, something like fans doing the wave at a stadium. The bees use this technique at other times, like when one is leaving the nest, but the researchers say they mobilize shimmering en masse when they see a hornet.
Hoping to fight off “colony collapse disorder,” the mysterious affliction that has devastated honeybee colonies, some British scientists want to get bees to start washing their feet—but with the intention of getting them dirty, not clean.
A team of University of Warwick researchers led by Dave Chandler believes that parasitic Varroa mites might be behind the honeybee’s decline; the mites can feed on young or old bees, and their presence usually spells doom for the entire colony. Varroas develop resistance to chemical pesticides, too, so the scientists turned to a more natural threat—fungi.
Seabirds called little terns nest near Tokyo’s airport after migrating north from Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. But National Geographic reports that are area’s crows are bad neighbors, prone to attacking and killing young terns.
For more than 40 years, scientists have known that honeybees communicate with one another through the language of dance. One bee flies around in loops and wags its rear end in patterns that can tell other members of the hive where to find food. Honeybees in different parts of the world perform the dance a little differently, according to a team of Australian, German, and Chinese researchers. And now the scientists say they’ve discovered that bees can even learn the dance language of their cousins from another continent.
The researchers carefully examined an Asian species and a European species of honeybee separately to determine that they used different “dialects” of the dance—in other words, they sent the same messages with slightly different dance moves. Then the scientists placed the two groups together for as long as 50 days, and after only a few tries, the European and Asian bees learned to communicate. The first time Asian worker bees watched a European bee dance, they didn’t fly far enough toward the food because the two species communicate distance differently. But the second time, researchers say, most Asian workers had learned the European bee language and found the food source right away.