13 Fascinating Facts About Bees

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Sure, you know that bees pollinate our crops and give us honey. But there's so much more to these buzzing insects than that.

1. Their sting has some benefits

A toxin in bee venom called melittin may prevent HIV. Melittin can kill HIV by poking holes into the virus's protective envelope. (Meanwhile, when mellitin hitches a ride on certain nanoparticles, it will just bounce off normal cells and leave them unharmed.) Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis hope the toxin can be used in preventative gels.  

Bee stings may also ease pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that molecules in bee venom increase your body’s level of glucocorticoid, an anti-inflammatory hormone.  

2. They work harder than you

During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death. 

3. When they change jobs, they change their brain chemistry

Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure. Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.

4. Their brains defy time

When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn’t just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like a younger person’s.)  Scientists at Arizona State University believe the discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia. 

5. They’re changing medicine

To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It’s basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Research shows that propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema.

6. They can recognize human faces

Honeybees make out faces the same way we do. They take parts—like eyebrows, lips, and ears—and cobble them together to make out the whole face. It’s called “configular processing,” and it might help computer scientists improve face recognition technology, the New York Times reports.

7. They have personalities

Even in beehives, there are workers and shirkers. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that not all bees are interchangeable drones. Some bees are thrill-seekers. Others are a bit more timid. A 2011 study even found that agitated honeybees can be pessimistic, showing that, to some extent, bees might have feelings.  

8. They get buzzed from caffeine and cocaine

Nature didn’t intend caffeine to be trapped inside an orange mocha frappucino. It’s actually a plant defense chemical that shoos harmful insects away and lures pollinators in. Scientists at Newcastle University found that nectar laced with caffeine helps bees remember where the flower is, increasing the chances of a return visit.

While caffeine makes bees work better, cocaine turns them into big fat liars. Bees “dance” to communicate—a way of giving fellow bees directions to good food. But high honeybees exaggerate their moves and overemphasize the food’s quality. They even exhibit withdrawal symptoms, helping scientists understand the nuances of addiction.  

9. They have Viking-like supervision

Bees use the sun as a compass. But when it’s cloudy, there’s a backup—they navigate by polarized light, using special photoreceptors to find the sun's place in the sky. The Vikings may have used a similar system: On sunny days, they navigated with sundials, but on cloudy days, sunstones—chunks of calcite that act like a Polaroid filter—helped them stay on course. 

10. They can solve hairy mathematical problems

Pretend it’s the weekend, and it’s time to do errands. You have to visit six stores and they’re all at six separate locations. What’s the shortest distance you can travel while visiting all six? Mathematicians call this “traveling salesman problem,” and it can even stump some computers. But for bumblebees, it’s a snap. Researchers at Royal Holloway University in London found that bumblebees fly the shortest route possible between flowers. So far, they’re the only animals known to solve the problem.

11. They’re nature’s most economical builders

In 36 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro argued that honeycombs were the most practical structures around. Centuries later, Greek mathematician Pappus solidified the “honeycomb conjecture” by making the same claim. Almost 2000 years later, Thomas Hales wrote a 19-page mathematical proof showing that, of all the possible structures, honeycombs use the least amount of wax. And not only are honeycombs the most efficient structures in nature—the walls meet at a precise 120-degree angle, a perfect hexagon. 

12. They can help us catch serial killers

Serial killers behave like bees. They commit their crimes close to home, but far away enough that the neighbors don’t get suspicious. Similarly, bees collect pollen near their hive, but far enough that predators can’t find the hive. To understand how this “buffer zone” works, scientists studied bee behavior and wrote up a few algorithms. Their findings improved computer models police use to find felons.

13. They’re job creators

Americans consume about 285 million pounds of honey each year. On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the country’s insect crops—meaning bees pollinate over $20 billion worth of crops each year.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


Getty Images

Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

10 Fun Facts About Corgis

iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya
iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya

You already know they’re cute, compact, and smart. But there’s a lot more to these beloved little dogs that you might not know. 

1. THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT BREEDS OF CORGIS.

There are two types of Welsh corgis: the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. They are considered two entirely different breeds because they come from different ancestors. Their remarkable resemblance is a result of crossbreeding in the 19th century.   

If you’re trying to tell the two breeds apart, the most notable difference is that the Pembroke does not have a tail. On top of a tail, Cardigan Welsh corgis also have rounded ears, while Pembrokes generally have pointy ears. 

2. THE CARDIGAN WELSH CORGI IS THE OLDER BREED.

Photo of a Welsh Corgi Cardigan
iStock/Silense

A warrior tribe of Celts brought the corgis in their aboriginal form to Cardiganshire, Wales around 1200 BCE, which means corgis have been in Wales for over 3000 years. This early breed was a member of the Teckel family of dogs that went on to include the dachshund. 

3. PEMBROKE WELSH CORGIS HAVE A CONSIDERABLE HISTORY AS WELL.

welsh Corgi Pembroke sitting in autumn leaves
iStock/HelenaQueen

Although no one knows for sure, most agree that the Pembroke Welsh corgi dates back to 1107 CE when Flemish weavers migrated to Wales. The Spitz-type dog bred with the original Cardigan corgis to produce the Pembroke Welsh corgis we know today. 

4. THE KENNEL CLUB ORIGINALLY LUMPED THE TWO BREEDS TOGETHER.

The two types of corgis were registered as one in 1925, leading to a lot of stress among breeders. Often a judge would favor one breed over the other, which would lead to controversies at dog shows. After nearly a decade of (pretty adorable) strife, the breeds gained separate recognition in 1934. 

5. CORGIS WERE ORIGINALLY USED AS HERDERS.


iStock

The Welsh used the short dogs as herders as early as the 10th century. In those days, pastures were considered common land, so there were no fences. In order to keep a farmer’s cattle together and separated from other herds, corgis would nip at their legs to herd them. Because of their closeness to the ground, corgis had easy access to the cows’ ankles and were difficult targets of the retaliatory kicks of cattle. 

6. ACCORDING TO WELSH LEGEND, FAIRIES RIDE THEM.

Some say that the corgi is an “enchanted dog” favored by fairies and elves. At night the magical creatures would use the dogs to pull their carriages and be their steeds in battle. According to legend, the markings on a corgi’s coat suggest the faint outline of a saddle and harness. 

7. THE ROYAL FAMILY LOVES THE PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI.


Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II has had more than 30 corgis in her lifetime. Though her last two corgis—Whisper and Willow—have both recently passed away, she does still have two dorgis (corgi/dachshund mixes) named Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen met her first corgi when King George VI brought a male pooch home from a kennel in 1933. Named Dookie, the dog was an immediate hit with the future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. 

After a second corgi named Jane entered the picture, the canine couple had a litter of puppies, two of which were kept. The Queen received another dog named Susan for her 18th birthday—from there, the collection of corgis really gained momentum. Some of the royal corgis bred with Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin to create dorgis.

8. CORGIS WERE USED TO PREDICT PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S NAME.

In the spring of 2015, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were awaiting the birth of their second child, people are already taking bets on the name. Gambling company Ladbrokes used corgis in an attempt to predict what the name would be. The company’s ad featured 10 corgis wearing vests with different names in a race to predict what the name of the child would be. The corgi sporting the name Alexandra won the race. Princess Charlotte was born on May 2, 2015.

9. CORGI MEANS "DWARF DOG" IN WELSH.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cor means dwarf and gi means dog.  

10. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOSTS A ENORMOUS CORGI MEETUP.


iStock

SoCal Corgi Beach Day started as a humble meet-up event at Huntington Beach in 2012. The first event attracted just 15 dogs; the last one had more than 1100 corgis in attendance. The event happens three times a year.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER