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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Officials at the highest levels are discussing the possibility of caving in on controlling the coronavirus and instead letting it run rampant throughout the United States until we reach "herd immunity," the point where the virus effectively runs out of people to infect. More than 6,200 scientists, health professionals, and research organizations say this is inhumane and have signed a memorandum rejecting herd immunity as a legitimate strategy.
Herd Immunity’s Unacceptable Toll<p>Resumption of normal life in the United States under a herd immunity approach would result in an enormous death toll by all estimates. Former CDC director Tom Frieden <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/tom-frieden-herd-immunity-wrong-solution-coronavirus/2020/10/16/acb4ae8a-0fe6-11eb-8074-0e943a91bf08_story.html" target="_blank">estimates</a> that another 500,000 people would have to die to achieve 60 percent herd immunity. "And that's the best-case scenario," Frieden wrote in a <em>Washington Post</em> op-ed. "The number of deaths to get there could be twice as high."</p><p>Frieden said that is the best-case scenario because no one really knows if the <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/herd-immunity-and-coronavirus/art-20486808" target="_blank">actual percentage needed</a> to see the virus peter out is to have it <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/521834-covid-19-vaccine-barriers-efficacy-availability-and-acceptability" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">infect</a> more like <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/31/herd-immunity-covid-19/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">65, 70,</a> or even <a href="https://www.vox.com/21451282/herd-immunity-explained-covid-19-pandemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">75 percent</a> of the population. Even if immunity could be miraculously achieved at 50 percent, an estimate <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-020-00451-5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published</a> in <em>Nature Reviews Immunology</em> places the range of sacrifice somewhere between 500,000 and 2.1 million deaths.</p><p>That makes it little wonder that Anthony Fauci, the most respected scientist advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, called herd immunity for the coronavirus "total nonsense." Fauci is backed up by the likes of National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who said herd immunity is a "dangerous" and "fringe" component of epidemiology. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Health <a href="https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/10/20/nation/scores-mass-scientists-doctors-sign-open-letter-against-herd-immunity-proposal/?outputType=amp" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called</a> herd immunity "junk science."</p><p>The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, <a href="https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---12-october-2020" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said this month</a> that the only acceptable form of "herd immunity" is achieved through vaccination. "Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it," the secretary general said. "Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic... Allowing a dangerous virus that we don't fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It's not an option."</p>
Herd Immunity Is the National De Facto Strategy<p>Somehow, none of that has culled herd immunity from being considered as a legitimate approach for fighting COVID-19. Rather, the Great Barrington Declaration has much in common with the Trump administration's approach to the coronavirus, which has led to more people dying from COVID-19 in the United States than in any other nation on Earth.</p><p>A de facto herd immunity approach is the only thing that can explain the push by governors of so many states to <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/the-push-to-relax-covid-19-protections-exposes-age-old-racial-wounds" target="_blank">reopen</a> bars, restaurants, beaches, bowling alleys, and gyms in states even as the virus has raged and case numbers have been increasing. It is the only thing that can explain the federal designation of meatpackers as essential workers and state demands that teachers go back into classrooms despite outbreaks and deaths related to those professions.</p><p>It also explains how so many of the nation's most respected scientific voices have been silenced. Despite the virus's current "uncontrolled spread" in 34 states and Puerto Rico, according to October 21 <a href="https://www.covidexitstrategy.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tracking</a> by CovidExistStrategy.org, the White House has pushed aside Fauci, Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.</p><p>In their place, the administration has handed the pandemic podium to <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY4ZGZhZmQ5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNGViMzQyIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL3BvbGl0aWNzL3RydW1wcy1kZW4tb2YtZGlzc2VudC1pbnNpZGUtdGhlLXdoaXRlLWhvdXNlLXRhc2stZm9yY2UtYXMtY29yb25hdmlydXMtc3VyZ2VzLzIwMjAvMTAvMTkvN2ZmOGVlNmEtMGE2ZS0xMWViLTg1OWItZjljMjdhYmU2MzhkX3N0b3J5Lmh0bWw_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.MyoXrwQD-PwWqdbb70_JfrI_fxHO0be_O_tpTTMXBgE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Scott Atlas</a>, a radiologist and conservative pundit with <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">no background</a> in infectious disease science or epidemiology in measuring disease prevalence. Inhumanely ignoring the more than half of U.S. adults having a pre-existing condition that could compromise them for COVID-19, he blithely praises herd immunity, <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">saying,</a> "We can allow a lot of people to get infected. Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected."</p><p>He <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/521688-birx-confronted-pence-about-atlas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pooh-poohs</a> expanded testing, saying, "you are destroying the workforce." Twitter recently took down one of Atlas's tweets for falsely claiming, "Masks work? NO" and then lying that the WHO says widespread mask use is "not supported." The first sentence of the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">webpage</a> on masks says, "Masks are a key measure to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."</p><p>Atlas denies that the White House has a "wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity." But there's little doubt that the White House is wide open to the idea. Last week, Atlas <a href="https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/trump-adviser-calls-nbc-town-hall-brazen-display-of-media-duplicity" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appeared</a> on Fox News <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/white-house-touts-document-calling-for-herd-immunity-approach-to-covid-19-crisis-11603051550" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to say</a> the thrust of the Great Barrington Declaration "is exactly aligned with the president." That was seconded by a senior administration official who <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/covid-herd-immunity/2020/10/10/3910251c-0a60-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told reporters</a> in a conference call that the Great Barrington Declaration "is endorsing what the president's policy has been for months."</p><p>The freezing out of scientists on the Coronavirus Task Force reached deep space levels this week (a metaphoric minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), with multiple buckets of ice dumped on Fauci. Atlas diminished Fauci as "just one person" on the force, offering only a "limited approach." President Trump called Fauci a "disaster," <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-fauci-campaign-biden/2020/10/19/30b2fe58-1226-11eb-82af-864652063d61_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">claiming,</a> "People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong."</p>
Many Thousands of Lives Can Still Be Saved<p>Atlas's malpractice already merits his dismissal. He should be forced to step down because his disregard for science will surely lead to incalculable disaster if a herd immunity approach becomes official government policy. Calls for his ouster have already begun even from inside the task force. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank">According</a> to the <em>Washington Post</em>, Birx went to Vice President Mike Pence to suggest removing Atlas. All Pence reportedly did was ask Birx and Atlas to work out their problems on their own.</p><p>There is no time left for such discord within the task force and for discordant messages to come from the White House on how people should protect themselves from COVID-19. The thousands of scientists and public health professionals who signed the John Snow Memorandum say "it is critical to act decisively and urgently," to launch a "robust" response on the level of New Zealand, Vietnam, or Japan—all of which have shown success in containing the virus and keeping the numbers of cases and deaths relatively low.</p><p>The approach that has been proven effective starts with face coverings and social distancing and reducing the temptation we all will feel during the oncoming winter holidays to have extended family gatherings. Researchers from MIT and the Vancouver School of Economics <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.27.20115139v6.full.pdf" target="_blank">estimate</a> in a working paper that, if the United States had established a national mask mandate in mid-March, between 19,000 and 47,000 lives could have been saved by the end of May. Now that the nation's death toll approaches a quarter million lives lost, and is <a href="https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america?view=total-deaths&tab=trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">projected</a> to reach nearly 400,000 by February 1, according to the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the institute estimates we could avoid 74,000 new deaths with universal mask use.</p><p>Importantly, masks protect others, including the most vulnerable among us. This week, the <em>Washington Post</em> reported how coronavirus outbreaks among college students partying in unmasked packs in LaCrosse, Wisconsin was found to have <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/21/la-crosse-wisconsin-covid-outbreak-nursing-home-deaths/?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY5MWU3YjU5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNTE3OGNmIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL2hlYWx0aC8yMDIwLzEwLzIxL2xhLWNyb3NzZS13aXNjb25zaW4tY292aWQtb3V0YnJlYWstbnVyc2luZy1ob21lLWRlYXRocy8_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.6Ep-AvkJkNqGTE08UsekVlNWR01vYzQe-qg5BPruSQM" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">led to 19 deaths so far of people over the age of 60</a>. Before that, the city had gone without a single pandemic death in its nursing homes.</p><p>That is on the heels of the wedding in Millinocket, Maine that resulted in an outbreak that <a href="https://bangordailynews.com/2020/09/19/news/eight-deaths-now-tied-to-millinocket-area-wedding-outbreak-including-seven-at-nursing-home/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">killed eight elderly people</a>, none of whom attended the event, and the 500,000-person Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally that is <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/17/sturgis-rally-spread/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now tied</a> to the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest and Mountain States. The Germain IZA Institute of Labor Economics estimates that the illness generated from the rally <a href="https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/13670/the-contagion-externality-of-a-superspreading-event-the-sturgis-motorcycle-rally-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">will cost</a> the nation $12.2 billion in health care costs.</p><p>Atlas and the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration have not yet said why this is just fine. That is why they must be unmasked for the charlatans that they are.</p>
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