This post was written by ScIU Undergraduate Intern Anna Grimes.
There is more to bees than what initially meets the eye! Sure, we couldn’t live without these busy pollinators, but bees are scientifically interesting beyond just the honey they create. Bees can provide insight into other areas of science, and they themselves are fascinating little creatures. Get to know bees better with the five crazy facts below!
Bee brains can “age in reverse” — Bees possess a protein that allows their brains to “age in reverse.” Specifically, we see differences in the cognitive ability of aging bees. As worker bees age, they are given different tasks within their colony. For example, young bees tend to the squirmy babies, while old bees tend to forage. When bees continuously do young bee work, they remain mentally competent, and their brains remain similar to those of young bees. Interestingly, when old bees re-take on the roles typically delegated to younger bees, the molecular structure of their brains changes and their ability to learn increases greatly! This research on bees’ brains could help scientists better understand the processes that contribute to dementia, or loss of memory and cognitive function, in humans.
Bees communicate through dance — Bees are capable of abstract communication. The worker bees in a colony are tasked with foraging and locating a food source and, thus, must be able to communicate their discoveries to the rest of the hive. These scouts use specific dances to recruit other foragers to the flowers they find. One such dance has been cutely coined the “waggle dance,” and it allows worker bees to quickly disclose the location and quality of a food source. The more vigorously the worker bees dance and the harder they wiggle, the better the food source. Studying bees’ waggle dances has allowed scientists to better understand the preferences of pollinators, because these movements can be used as an indicator of a landscape’s quality.
Females bees have double the chromosomes of male bees — Unlike humans, in which sex is determined by the composition of their two sex chromosomes, the sex of bees is determined by the number of chromosomes. If a bee has two full sets of chromosomes, then it’s a female. However, if a bee only has one set of chromosomes, then it’s a male. This difference in chromosome number exists because male bees develop from unfertilized eggs and only get genetic material from their mother, the queen. Female bees, on the other hand, have two parents and get a set of DNA from both their mother and their father. So, the female worker and queen bees have double the genetic material of males! This also means that female bees in a colony are very closely related. In fact, their similar DNA might be part of what makes their communal living evolutionarily viable. Sisters are more related to one another than to any potential offspring, so they tend to invest more in helping each other. Thus, there is great evolutionary incentive for female bees to delegate work and support the queen, because it helps ensure the survival of their close relatives.
Bees with the same DNA can live wildly different lives — Bees have traits that are affected by their environment and not just their genetics, a mechanism that is called phenotypic plasticity. A queen and worker bee can be genetically identical sisters, but unlike worker bees, the queen is fed a special diet of royal jelly. Consequently, queens grow much bigger than workers and lay eggs (up to 2,000 a day)! Queens live up to five years compared to the five very busy weeks that a worker bee lives. The path to queenhood is difficult, though. Queen bees partake in a sometimes bloody ascension. Once a queen bee emerges from her larval stage, she’ll go around and slaughter the other candidates for the queenship, even if they are still in the larval stage. Basically, anyone else eating royal jelly has got to go. It’s very theatrical!
Bees can help catch serial killers — Bees provide helpful models for catching criminals. They make “buffer zones” around their hives, which exist both to prevent bees from leading predators to their hives and to avoid traveling too far for food. Criminals display a similar behavior pattern as bees; they do not want to commit crimes too close to home, which helps them to avoid being caught or recognized by someone they know, but they also don’t want to travel too far away. So, criminologists are using bee behavior to create predictive models, which help them anticipate where a criminal may strike next!
While bees are important pollinators, they also have value beyond what they can do for plants. Bees are more than just the threat of stings and the treat of honey; these little insects are used across fields of scientific research, from criminology to gerontology, to help us understand psychology and human aging. So the next time you see a bee buzzing nearby, think about all that these little creatures do for us!
Edited by Kat Munley and Ben Greulich