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Honeybees have surprising abilities to maintain their nest structure

In an unexpected revelation from Auburn University‘s Department of Biological Sciences, honeybee colonies have demonstrated incredible adaptability and resilience in maintaining their nest structures, even amid severe disturbances. This discovery is in stark contrast to prior beliefs and paves the way for new understanding of these complex creatures.

The study at hand, led by an international team of researchers, centered on the honey bee colonies’ intricate, three-dimensional nest-building behavior. 

How the study was conducted

The scientists went beyond typical observation methods, employing photo-based, non-destructive techniques. This involved using moveable wooden bee-frames, which allowed for continuous monitoring and analysis of the nests’ growth and organization without causing harm to the colonies.

Interestingly, honeybees rapidly construct a well-connected, spherical nest made up of parallel combs. These combs extend uniformly in all directions from the point of origin. But how essential is this seemingly stereotyped structure to the colony’s development and functioning?

In an attempt to find an answer, the researchers shook things up. They randomly rearranged the moveable frames in a group of colonies every week, creating a continuous disruption to the nest structure. The initial hypothesis was that such disturbances would inevitably lead to a decrease in colony-level performance.

Digging deeper for answers

But reality was different. There were no significant disparities in worker population, comb area, hive weight, or nest temperature between colonies with disrupted nest structures and those maintaining their original arrangements. This surprising outcome made the researchers dig deeper into how honeybees can compensate for repeated disruptions.

“Sometimes you just have to do the experiment and see what the bees will do,” said study senior author Michael L. Smith.

What they found was fascinating. Upon modeling the colony’s building behavior, they discovered that honeybee colonies prioritize structural connectedness when expanding their nests. 

Even after significant disruptions, the bees actively repair connections in the nest structure, highlighting their adaptability to alter the comb shape according to the available space within a cavity. This attribute is crucial for survival in the wild, where cavities are not always regular.

What the researchers learned

Why do honeybees emphasize nest connectedness? The researchers postulate several reasons. A well-connected nest minimizes the surface area-to-volume ratio, potentially enhancing thermoregulation efficiency, which could lead to better larvae development and winter survival. 

Also, a connected structure could facilitate better information sharing among colony members and optimize travel distances within the nest for essential activities, including foraging, feeding larvae, and laying eggs.

“We were all surprised that the shuffled colonies performed as well as they did,” said study first author Peter R. Marting. “We expected some shuffled colonies wouldn’t even survive the summer. The bees’ resilience led us to take a closer look at how and where exactly workers were adding new comb to shape their nests and ultimately led us to develop the predictive comb growth models.”

This study is a step towards understanding the mechanisms behind the adaptive building strategies of these social insects. The researchers believe that insights into such resilience in complex systems could have implications beyond the realm of entomology.

The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences and are available for reference.

More about honeybees

Honeybees play a crucial role in ecosystems as key pollinators. They help fertilize flowers by transferring pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts. 

This fertilization process allows plants to fruit and seed, leading to the production of a vast majority of our fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without honeybees, our food system would be severely compromised.

The role of honeybees isn’t just confined to agricultural landscapes. They also contribute significantly to the pollination of wild plants, thereby maintaining biodiversity and the robustness of natural habitats. The services provided by these insects underpin much of the terrestrial ecosystems and their robust functioning.

Facing various threats from climate change

However, honeybees and other pollinators worldwide are facing numerous threats, one of which is climate change. Changes in climate patterns can disrupt the synchronized timing between bees and flowering plants. 

If flowers bloom earlier or later due to unusual weather patterns, bees may miss the window for foraging. This could lead to a decrease in the availability of their food sources, subsequently impacting their survival and reproduction rates.

Moreover, extreme weather events linked to climate change, such as excessive heat, cold, drought, or heavy rains, can directly affect bee health and survival. For instance, bees can overheat and die during heatwaves or become inactive during cold snaps, leading to a decline in their populations. Severe weather conditions can also damage or destroy hives.

Increasing temperatures also alter geographical ranges for some species, potentially leading to the loss of suitable habitats for bees. Rising temperatures might enable the spread of pathogens and pests into new areas, posing further threats to bees.

Pesticides, diseases and other challenges to honeybees

In the context of honeybee populations, climate change can exacerbate the challenges they are already facing, such as exposure to pesticides, habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanization, and diseases and pests. All these factors together contribute to the worrying decline in honeybee populations observed in recent years.

Protecting and promoting the health of honeybees is not only important for preserving biodiversity but also crucial for our food security. Hence, there is a pressing need for conservation efforts, sustainable agricultural practices, and proactive measures to mitigate climate change for the survival of these invaluable insects and, in turn, the health of our ecosystems.


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