Illustration: Rebecca Kelly
George Merrin tells us about the secret life of bees, and their many fascinating talents.
BEES have been in media recently, and not just in Bee Movie memes. Studies have come to light showing us that they have incredible mental ability. Recently a video surfaced on Facebook of bees playing their version of football. The research was completed by the Queen Mary University in London, who trained bees to initially put yellow balls into a goal to receive syrup.
They then used already trained bees to train other bees using three balls, two of which were closer to the goal but glued to the surface. The bee which observed this was given the same scenario, except none of the balls were glued. In most cases the bee chose the ball which was closest to the goal, i.e. a different ball to that which was demonstrated for them.
“Bees are cognitively flexible”
This showed that bees are cognitively flexible. Bees are also social learners as they were 99% successful when trained by a fellow bee, which is significantly higher than if they were not. Bees are incredibly skilled at mapping out routes and are the only animals known to be able to solve the “travelling salesman problem”. This is basically where a person must go to six different places in the same day in the shortest distance possible.
Bees have also been used to create algorithms used by police forces to capture serial killers. Serial killers choose their victims in a similar manner to how bees choose flowers. Bees choose flowers that are close enough to be convenient, but not so close as to alert predators to their hives. Serial killers tend to kill people far enough away to be convenient, but not close enough to tip off their neighbours and police.
“Flowers which contain caffeine are more memorable to bees than flowers without caffeine”
Bee venom, apitoxin, contains melittin. Melittin is a twenty-six-amino acid peptide, which erodes cell membranes. Because of this, it is believed that it could be used as a cancer drug as it could remove tumours. Nanobots, called nanobees could potentially deliver melittin to the desired cells.
Melittin can also be used for the treatment of HIV as it can destroy the double-layered envelope that surrounds the virus. There are two main treatments currently being explored. The first is a vaginal gel that would kill the virus during intercourse, the other is as an intravenous drug.
Bees have also been shown to be addicts. Flowers that contain caffeine are more memorable to bees than flowers without caffeine. Cocaine also affects bees. It causes them to over-exaggerate their “wiggle-dance” indicating that there is more food than there is. This makes more bees visit that plant and then pollinate it more. Bees have also been shown to exhibit withdrawal symptoms if they have been feeding from these flowers for a long period.
But bees are under threat, and have been announced as an endangered species for the first time. This is because of various reasons such as pesticide use and the ever-looming threat of global warming. Global warming is advancing the pollination period meaning that plants come into bloom before bees are fully capable of collecting all the pollen.
“Bees have also been used to create algorithms used by police forces to capture serial killers”
Varroa destructor is also contributing to the decline of honey bees, especially across Northern America. This mite causes varroosis due to the mite sucking the haemolymph of the bee. Haemolymph is like blood and is found in organisms with open circulatory system. This can lead to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is a major problem. This is where most of the mature worker bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen and the juvenile workers with a large supply of both pollen and honey. This is becoming an issue. In the six years before 2013, ten million hives were lost to CCD, double the normal rate.
We must do more to protect this species which is so important to us, for both food and flower production, and other aspects of our lives.