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Tag "Bees"

I played around a bit with Google’s ngrams these days and up came some pretty interesting curves.

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The graph shows the how often the words have been found in the books contained in Google’s sample.

As you can see, use of the words “insects”, “bees” and “beetles” shows a distinct downward trend starting somewhen in the 1950s, whereas use of the word “pesticides” increases from the 1960s. “Pollination” begins to be an issue at the beginning of the 20th century.

I also find it interesting (though not surprising) that bees consistently get much more attention than beetles, despite the latter being the much larger group.

If you want to look up the literary treasures in Google’s digital vaults, here is original ngram.

In the German literature, there also is a decline in “Bienen” and “Insekten” from the 1950s. Pollination (“Bestäubung”) however is much more of an issue from the mid 19th-century and “Pflanzenschutz” (which is a bit more general a term than “pesticides”) appears throughout the 20th century.

[Click graphic to enlarge]

These data clearly reflect a shift in interest over the past 50 years. They do not, however, but I think that is clear, prove any causal relationship.

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Because pollen sucks.

It does! But if you prefer the smart word: it’s hygroscopic. It attracts water.

And where is water, there is rot.
Which is a problem when you are an insect that relies on pollen to feed its brood and therefore needs to store pollen for weeks, if not months. You may be more or less okay when in a desert or at least able to avoid the rainy season – but in our friendly fertile temperate zones, you’re not.

Still, they are here. Plenty of them. Mason bees and leafcutter bees and carder bees and many more.


In their new paper, Christophe Praz and his colleagues suggest a scenario for just how this could have happened:

Before the bees began to feed pollen to their brood (i.e. before they actually became bees) they were something similar to today’s apoid wasps (Grabwespen). They were hunting other insects, paralysed their victims and dragged them into the broodnest where their prey would stay alive for several weeks before being consumed by the larvae.
You may find this disgusting or not, but keeping your food alive until consumption is definitely a good way to keep it fresh.
And there is nothing „primitive“ or old-fashioned about it. There are still plenty of wasps around who do exactly this. But this method does have its costs. Hunting takes time, it’s not without risks, chances to find prey are limited and so on. So when the flowering plants arrived and offered pollen as an alternative source of protein, the bees’ ancestors skipped their carnivorous habits and became all out vegetarians. Which – as we all know – turned out to be a smart move.

But before the flowers and the bees could become one of the biggest success stories on the planet, there was one more innovation needed.

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Do I see a pattern here?

Roseville, CA.

Before: Savannah, LA

Where will they show up next?

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This is what happens if you leave it all to the spellchecker!

The quote appeared in a piece by Reuters about the decoding of the honeybee genome in 2006. Apparently, the autocorrect dutifully replaced all mentions of “the queen” with “Queen Elizabeth”, thus informing us about some yet unheard of capacities of the British monarch.

Thanks to  Radiolab for referring to this beautiful typo in “Oops. Stories of unintended consequences” and to Craig Silverman for gracefully preserving it on Regret the Error.

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Thanks to @imkerplatform for pointing me to this beautiful infographic by FFunction!

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The one objection I would have is the title – fortunately, extinction is not yet an issue…

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I am still on the road for research and preparations and can’t write much.
But I don’t want to keep this one from you. This is where I had coffee today:

They are among us.

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While the honeybees were fine there was little interest in pollinators and pollination in general. People just took it for granted. But with the ongoing news about CCD and concerns about declining bee populations worldwide the interest in wild bees as natural pollinators and “backup” for honeybee pollination has risen sharply. It turned out, however, that very little was known about the changes in diversity and abundance of wild bees, despite their importance for natural and agricultural systems.

In North America, there had been fragmentary observations that populations of wild bees were declining, but the evidence for large scale range reductions has been lacking. Now a study has been published in PNAS that for the first time provides nationwide data for eight historically abundant species of bumble bees. And for some of them, the news is not good.

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois and Utah State University compared historical data of the past 100 years from museum collections with current data based on extensive surveys in the US between 2007 and 2009. They focused on eight target species – four expected to have relatively stable populations, and four where preliminary data suggested a decline. Overall, they had 73 759 specimens in the historical data set and collected 16 788 specimens at 382 sites for the current data set.

From this data, they were, for the first time, able to confirm the decline and to quantify its extent for four species: Bombus occidentalis, B. affinis, B. pensylvanicus, and B. terricola. All these species suffered a reduction in their geographic range as well as in their relative abundance. The species most massively affected is B. affinis, with an estimated reduction in range-area of 87% compared to historical data.

It is interesting to see that the declines in relative abundance appear only in the last 20 to 30 years, with, as the authors point out, “values from current surveys lower than in any decade of the last century”.

Concerning possible causes for the decline, they considered pathogens and genetic diversity in their study.
They consistently found higher infection levels of the microsporidium
Nosema bombi and lower genetic diversity in the declining populations, which makes these factors realistic predictors for the trajectory of a population. But they also state that cause and effect remain still uncertain. From the findings in the current study, it is not yet possible to determine, for example, whether the increased prevalence of N. bombi is the result of higher susceptibility to the pathogen or if N. bombi is simply more common in declining species for other reasons. Factors like habitat fragmentation, the loss of floral and nesting resources, or climate change were not considered in this study.

Cameron, S., Lozier, J., Strange, J., Koch, J., Cordes, N., Solter, L., & Griswold, T. (2011). Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014743108

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Just quickly: I am so delighted about this new piece of research about how bumble-bees perceive colour patterns, that I don’t want to miss the opportunity to share it.

The study has been conducted by 25 children from Blackawton Elementary School (!) and was published this week in the scientific journal Biology Letters from the UK’s prestigious Royal Society. The graphics are drawn in crayon and the main findings include “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. “

For more on this, take a look over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, where Ed Yong has a beautiful post about the research and also a lot of background about how the entire project came about.

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As I wrote before, we are trying to get our heads around a few things related to bees and social insects in general. One of them is the concept of the Superorganism (which somehow seems to be much more readily embraced in popular culture than among biologists).

Two prominent proponents of the superorganism-concept are Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson and their book “The Superorganism” is a phantastic source of examples from the natural history of social insects. Although “ant-people” by profession and inclination, they have plenty of stories to tell for “bee-pople” as well.

„[O]ur intention here is to present the rich and diverse natural history facts that illustrate superorganismic traits in insect societies and to trace the evolutionary pathways to the most advanced stages of eusociality.

Our intent in doing so is to revive the superorganism concept, with emphasis on colony-level adaptive traits, such as division of labor and communication. Finally, in presenting the subject this way, we visualize the colony as a self-organized entity and a target of natural selection.

In this book, we view the insect colony as the equivalent of an organism, the unit that must be examined in order to understand the biology of colonial species.“

Hölldobler and Wilson strongly argue that natural selection works on several levels, not just on individuals and their genes, but on groups as well.

„Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels. Biology is the study of the levels that compose the hierarchy. No phenomenom at any level can be wholly characterized without incorporating other phenomena that arise at all levels. (…) Natural selection that targets a trait at any of these levels ripples in effect across all the others.“ (pp 7f)

So, while the “selfish gene” does play an important role, they see other mechanims at work as well.
More on the history of the different evolutionary concepts you can find in this interview with Bert Hölldobler on Wired.

Aside from the debate about underlying evolutionary principles, I do like the focus of the superorganism concept on self-organization and decentralized, bottom-up processes. There is no “brain-caste” in insect societies. “Order” and “intelligence” are achieved by cooperation alone. Cooperation according to some very strict and unrelenting rules, though (or behavioral patterns, if that’s a better term).

Also, by the way, Ed Yong reports some compelling Mathematical Support for Insect Colonies as Superorganisms.

Und: “Der Superorganismus” ist inzwischen auch in deutscher Ãœbersetzung verfügbar.

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While the bees have done the smart thing and huddled up for winter, we are wide awake and using the snowy days for catching up on reading and working on the “wider picture”.

There is a lot about bees that is interesting, and the more we study them, the more we keep encountering new and strange and unexpected connections that reach way beyond bees and biology.

Take the superorganism.

Now I know what you are thinking (or what you would be thinking if you were anything like me):

The Borg-Cube

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