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Honey bees are experts at social distancing

New research published in the journal Science Advances shows that honey bees increase their distance from each other when under threat from parasites

“Here we have provided the first evidence that honey bees modify their social interactions and how they move around their hive in response to a common parasite,” said study co-author Dr. Alessandro Cini.

“Honey bees are a social animal, as they benefit from dividing up responsibilities and interactions such as mutual grooming, but when those social activities can increase the risk of infection, the bees appear to have evolved to balance the risks and benefits by adopting social distancing.”

The international team of scientists looked at how honey bee hives react to the presence of one of an ectoparasitic threat – the Varro mite (Varroa destructor). The mite is dangerous to individual bees as well as entire colonies. 

The scientists compared healthy colonies with those infected with the mite and found a number of differences. Foraging dances that can cause mite transmission were less frequent within the central part of the hive in infected colonies. Grooming behaviors were also less common. Overall, the foraging bees moved to the outsides of the colony while nurse and groomer bees spent more time concentrated in the center of the colony. 

Bee colonies are already compartmentalized to keep a distance between these two areas of the colony. This seems to keep the different groups of bees separate and slow the spread of parasites. 

“The observed increase in social distancing between the two groups of bees within the same parasite-infested colony represents a new and, in some ways, surprising aspect of how honey bees have evolved to combat pathogens and parasites,” explained study lead author Dr. Michelina Pusceddu.

“Their ability to adapt their social structure and reduce contact between individuals in response to a disease threat allows them to maximize the benefits of social interactions where possible, and to minimise the risk of infectious disease when needed.”

The researchers believe that honey bees could be model organisms for understanding social distancing behavior in other animals as well. 

“Honey bee colonies provide an ideal model for studying social distancing and for fully understanding the value and effectiveness of this behavior,” said Dr. Pusceddu.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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