Bees use social distancing when mites threaten hives – study | The bees
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Over the past 18 months, humans have grown too familiar with the term ‘social distancing’. But it turns out that we’re not the only ones leaving plenty of room for our peers when our health may be at risk: research suggests that bees are too.
Scientists have discovered that when a bee hive is threatened by the mite Varroa killer – a parasite linked to the collapse of honey bee colonies – bees react by changing the way they interact with each other.
“If you think we have a brain, we are aware of it, but it took us a while to change our daily behavior [in response to Covid], I think it’s exciting to see other animals doing something similar, ”said Dr Alessandro Cini, co-author of the research at University College London.
Writing in the journal Science Advances, Cini and colleagues describe how they first examined beehives in Sardinia, Italy, and compared the behavior of bees in hives naturally infected with mites, to those in hives that had been treated to get rid of the parasites.
Examining videos recorded inside the hives, the team found that when the hive became infested with mites, the forager bees – which tend to be older members of the colony – performed important dances to indicate the direction of food sources, such as the wriggling dance, away from the center of the colony where the young bees are, are the queen and brood cells.
This, Cini said, can help keep the infection at a level that can be controlled, thus limiting the extent of damage. “Foragers are one of the main entry routes for mites,” Cini said. “So the longer they stay away from brood and young individuals, the better in terms of preventing the spread of mites within the colony.”
The team also saw changes in where the bees interacted: in uninfected colonies, this tended to be concentrated among the young in the middle part of the hive, but the researchers found that it was was even more the case when mites were present. “They’re probably concentrating their thoughts [efforts] towards the most important part of the colony, leaving the grooming of the foragers, ”said Cini.
The team then conducted laboratory experiments, artificially infecting small groups of around 12 young bees with the mites and comparing them to uninfected groups. This time around, the team found no increase in social distancing among the infected groups – which, according to Cini, may reflect that it is more important for foragers and young bees to keep their distance when mites are present, and that the bees depend on each other.
“Social distancing is probably too expensive on a small scale,” he said.
But again, there were differences in grooming behavior: infected bees were more cared for, inspected more, and had more food shared with them than individuals from uninfected groups.
Cini said the study showed the power of natural selection in the evolution of social behavior. “And also a dynamic change in social behavior to adapt to a constantly changing environment,” he said.
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