Collective behaviors are present across many different animal groups: schools of fish swimming in a swirling pattern together, large flocks of birds migrating through the night, groups of bees coordinating their behavior to defend their hive. These behaviors are commonly seen in social insects where as many as thousands of individuals work together, often with distinct roles. In honey bees, the role a bee plays in the colony changes as they age.
Honey bee workers collect pollen and nectar from a variety of flowering plants to use as a food source. Honey bees typically forage from up to 1-2 miles away from the hive, though sometimes they travel even further, including up to 10 miles away. However, much of the modern landscape consists of agricultural fields, which limits the foraging options for honey bees in these areas.
An unusual study that involved bar coding and tracking the behavior of thousands of individual honey bees in six queenless bee hives and analyzing gene expression in their brains offers new insights into how gene regulation contributes to social behavior.
Bees and humans are about as different organisms as one can imagine. Yet despite their many differences, surprising similarities in the ways that they interact socially have begun to be recognized in the last few years. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, building on their earlier studies, have experimentally measured the social networks of honey bees and how they develop over time.
For anyone trying to tease out how the brain makes sense of the world, the honey bee is a perfect choice of study organism. It’s a social animal, living in a complex society where the jobs are divvied up. It has its own special language: the waggle dance, which scouts use to tell their nestmates exactly where to find the best flowers. It’s a champion navigator, using the sun and other cues to find its way to floral resources sometimes miles away and then bring them back to the hive. It harvests and then processes – some would say “cooks” – its food.
There’s plenty of sweet irony in a new partnership between Illinois and St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, LLC, that will raise money for bee research at the university.
Anheuser-Busch has pledged $5,000 to The Healthy Bee Fund at Illinois. In addition, the company will donate $1 to the fund for every case sold of b, a new alcoholic honey beverage scheduled to go on sale in the Northeast U.S. in March.
More than a decade after the identification of colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon marked by widespread loss of honey bee colonies, scientists are still working to untangle the ecologically complex problem of how to mitigate ongoing losses of honey bees and other pollinating species. One much-needed aid in this effort is more efficient ways to track specific impacts on bee health. To address this need, a group of Illinois researchers has established a laboratory-based method for tracking the fertility of honey bee queens.
“Only connect”—E. M. Forster’s pithy quotation captures an essential feature of any society, human or animal: the patterns of interactions among individuals out of which collective behaviors arise. By developing a system that allows automated, in-depth monitoring of the social interactions of honey bees, researchers have now uncovered an unexpected property of the bee social network that may someday help us design more effective human and machine communication systems.