Honey bees are hardwired to efficiently search the landscape allowing them to continue working for the greater good of their hive even when they are sick.
British researchers used radar technology to show for the first time that bees remain nimble and able to search and respond to their environment even when they have infections or viruses.
The team, led by Queen Mary University of London researchers, fitted a transponder, a tiny dipole aerial much lighter than the nectar or pollen normally carried by the bee, to the thorax of the bee.
Co-author Prof. Juliet Osborne from the University of Exeter, said the team tracked each bee individually, picking up a radar signal form the transponder showing where and how it was flying.
“We tracked the individual flying bees with a harmonic radar system,” Osborne says. “This involves attaching a very lightweight aerial to their back, but it doesn’t affect how fast they fly, or how much nectar they collect. It is still the only method for getting these really detailed data on where the bee flies.”
Bees can fall ill and getting around during periods of sickness can become very challenging.
Lead author Stephan Wolf from Queen Mary University’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said the study shows that even very sick bees are still able to optimally search their surroundings in so-called Lévy flight patterns.
Lévy search patterns are a natural mathematical pattern found across the animal kingdom, including in early human hunter-gathers, and describe certain movements such as stalking for prey or searching for mates.
The pattern alternates between clusters of short steps interjected with longer steps in between, which allows the individual to efficiently comb through large surface areas.
“The honeybees we observed had remarkably robust searching abilities, which indicate this might be hardwired in the bees rather than learned, making bees strong enough to withstand pathogens and possibly other stressors, and allowing them to still contribute to their colony by for example, foraging for food.” Wolf said.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the team reports it monitored six groups of bees that were affected with a virus and a fungus-like disease to varying degrees. The flight behavior of 78 bees was observed.
The researchers discovered that the unhealthy bees didn’t fly as far or for as long as the healthy bees but they continued to search in the same manner, suggesting that the pattern was inbuilt.
The work opens up new avenues to better understand and ultimately mitigate a number of adverse factors affecting the way animals interact with their environment, including ecological key species such as bee pollinators.
The research was carried out at Rothamsted Research and also involved the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, the University of Sussex and the Martin Luther University in Germany.