Honey Bees Can’t Practice Social Distancing, So They Stay Healthy in Close Quarters by Working Together
By Rachael Bonoan and Phil Starks
As many states and cities across the U.S. struggle to control COVID-19 transmission, one challenge is curbing the spread among people living in close quarters. Social distancing can be difficult in places such as nursing homes, apartments, college dormitories and migrant worker housing.
As behavioral ecologists who have studied social interactions in honey bees, we see parallels between life in the hive and efforts to manage COVID-19 in densely populated settings. Although honey bees live in conditions that aren't conducive to social distancing, they have developed unique ways to deal with disease by collectively working to keep the colony healthy.
Life in a Crowd
Honey bees, like humans, are highly social organisms. A honey bee colony is a bustling metropolis made up of of thousands of individuals.
Three "types" of bees share space inside the colony. The queen, who is the only reproductive female, lays eggs. Drones, the male bees, leave the hive to mate with queens from other colonies. Workers – sterile females – make up the bulk of the colony and do all the nonreproductive work. They construct wax comb, collect and bring back food, tend to the young and more.
Members of a colony work so well together that the colony can be referred to as a "superorganism" – a highly connected community that functions like a single being.
Being this social comes with many benefits: Just ask any single parent how helpful it would be right now to live in a community that featured cooperative child care! But it also imposes costs – notably, the spread of disease. Inside the hive, worker bees transfer nectar to each other, essentially swapping the essential ingredient for honey. They crawl on top of each other and bump into others all the time.
What's more, humans keep many honey bee colonies next to each other for agricultural purposes. This creates unnatural, densely populated "cities" of these superorganisms, where pests and disease can spread rampantly.
Like humans, individual worker bees have immune systems that recognize invading pathogens and fight to get rid of them. However, there are some classes of pathogens that the honey bee immune system does not seem to recognize. Bees thus need a different tactic for fighting them.
For these threats, honey bees defend the colony via social immunity – a cooperative behavioral effort by many bees to protect the colony as a whole. For example, worker bees remove diseased and dead young from the colony, reducing the likelihood of transmitting infections to other bees.
Worker bees also line the hive with an antimicrobial substance called propolis, made from plant resin that they collect and mix with wax and bee enzymes. Applied to hive walls and between cracks, this "bee glue" kills various types of pathogens, including the bacterium that causes a dreaded honey bee disease called American foulbrood.
Another pathogen, the fungus Ascosphaera apis, causes a honey bee disease known as chalkbrood. Because the fungus is heat sensitive, chalkbrood usually does not affect a strong honey bee hive, which maintains its own temperature somewhere between 89.6 degrees F and 96.8 degrees F. But when a colony is small or the outside temperature is cool, as in an early New England spring, chalkbrood can become a problem.
The chalkbrood pathogen affects young honey bees, or larvae, which become infected when they are fed spores from infected food. It lies dormant in the larval gut waiting for the temperature to drop below 86 degrees F. If this happens, the pathogen grows inside the larval stomach and eventually kills the young bee, turning it into a white chalk-like mummy.
When this pathogen is detected, worker bees protect the vulnerable young by contracting their large flight muscles to generate heat. This raises the temperature in the brood comb area of the hive just enough to kill the pathogen. (Honey bees use heat for many reasons: to optimize offspring development, to fight pathogens, and even to "bake" invading hornets.)
In a recent study, we investigated how the efficiency of colony-level fever might change with colony size. At the Starks Lab Apiary, we infected colonies of various sizes with chalkbrood and tracked the response of the colonies with thermal imaging.
Larger colonies successfully generated a colony-level fever to fight the disease. Smaller colonies struggled, but individual bees in the smaller colonies worked harder to raise the temperature than those in the larger colonies. Even if they fail, the bees don't cave in to fever fatigue by abandoning the fight.
In the Hive, Public Health is for Everyone
Like honey bee colonies in agricultural fields, many humans live in extremely dense conditions, which has been especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic. The point of social distancing is to act as if we live in lower densities by wearing masks, keeping at least 6 feet away from others and allowing fewer people in stores.
Data from early in the pandemic show that social distancing was slowing the spread of the virus. But then humans became lockdown-fatigued. By summer, many people were no longer social distancing or wearing masks; on average, individuals were doing less to slow the spread of the virus than in April. The five-day running average of new U.S. cases rose from less than 10,000 in early May to more than 55,000 by late July.
Although honey bees cannot wear masks or socially distance, each individual worker contributes to the public health of the colony. And they all follow the same practices.
They also excel at making group decisions. For example, when it comes time to choose a new home, a worker bee who has checked out a new nest site dances to promote it to other bees. The more suitable the site, the longer and harder she will work to convince the others.
If others express agreement – via dancing, of course – the colony moves to the new nest site. If the bees do not agree, that specific dance stops, that option eventually falls out of favor, and the search continues. In this way, only a group of informed supporters can win the day.
As many commentators have observed, the strong focus on freedom and individualism in American culture has hampered the U.S. response to COVID-19. We see honey bees as a valuable counter-model, and as powerful evidence that social benefits require a community.
Phil Starks receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Rachael Bonoan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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