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Are Bees Really All That Busy?

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If idioms are to be believed, bees are some of the most industrious animals around. But it’s a little more complicated than poet Isaac Watts made it out be be when he wrote “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour, / And gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!”

Some bees don’t really do any work at all, and are parasites of other bee species. These so-called “cuckoo bees” don’t collect pollen or build their own homes. Instead, they steal food from, and lay their eggs in, other bees’ nests. When the cuckoo bee larvae hatch, they eat their hosts’ pollen stores and sometimes their eggs if mom didn’t feast on them already. 

Other bee groups—the stingless bees, bumble bees and honey bees—are social insects that live together and work cooperatively. They put in honest work, unlike the cuckoo bees, but the amount of labor any one bee does varies with its role in the colony. The honey bee workers that forage food for the hive often do work “all the day,” like in the poem. Slate’s Forrest Wickman reports that these workers spend nearly every hour of daylight outside” and entomologists have seen them making more than 100 foraging trips in a day. But these guys strictly work the dayshift, and come home to relax when the sun goes down. Meanwhile, other workers whose jobs keep them home tending honeycombs and cooling the nest work around the clock, but also take frequent breaks. “Drones, by contrast, are quite lazy,” Wickman says. “They don’t leave the hive until early afternoon, at which time they carouse around in packs, and when they get home just a few hours later, they rely on the worker bees to feed them.”

Even among the foraging workers, the workload isn’t shared evenly and some bees are busier than others. New research suggests that it’s a small group of workers that do the bulk of the labor, while the others take it easy until conditions in the colony change and prompt them to get to work. 

For the study, researchers from the University of Illinois set up five experimental honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies—three in natural outdoor areas and two inside screened enclosures. Each hive was equipped with pairs of laser scanners at its entrance, and 100 to 300 workers from each colony were tagged with tiny microtransponders. As these workers passed through the hive entrances, the scanners recorded the unique IDs of their tags, the direction they were traveling (that is, entering or exiting the hive) and the time of day. The setup allowed the researchers to track the workers as they came and went and tell how much time they spent out and about or in the hive, kind of like the time clocks that some businesses use to track employee hours. The scientists also used handheld scanners to record tagged bees’ visits to pollen and nectar feeders that they’d set up near the enclosed hives. 

After almost two months of gathering data while the bees went about their business, the researchers got a picture of the workers’ activity levels, and it showed that a small portion of bees were much busier than the rest. In all five hives, around 20 percent of the tagged workers accounted for half of the total recorded flight activity. These “elite” foragers, the researchers say, “began to make trips as soon as the colony became active each morning, and made regular, closely spaced trips throughout the day until the cessation of colony-wide flight activity in the evening.” 

The elite workers weren’t always busy, though, and their activity levels spiked and dipped over the course of the experiment and their lifetimes. That made the researchers think that the elite bees’ hard-working ways weren’t intrinsic, which team leader Gene Robinson says has always been the assumption with social insects, but adaptive. A worker might be more or less active in response to certain circumstances, like a favorite food source running low or new sources appearing. If the super foragers weren’t special, then maybe the other bees weren’t simply slackers, but more of a reserve work force also capable of elite behavior and just waiting for their time to shine. 

To see if the low-activity bees could and would step up their game when duty called, the researchers waited at the feeders near the enclosed hives during peak foraging time  and captured all the bees that arrived there. While they couldn’t specifically target known high-activity bees, the busier workers did have a higher chance of getting bee-napped because they made more trips. Sure enough, when the scientists checked the IDs of the captured bees and looked at their previous day’s flight records, most of the bees they removed were in the top 20 percent of the workforce. 

For the rest of the day after the cull, the feeders at both hives were quiet, with fewer than ten visits between them. The next day, though, foraging activity and the number of bees at the feeders returned to normal. The bees that had been taking it easy before were picking up the slack of their missing co-workers, some of them boosting their activity levels by almost 500 percent. The results, the researchers say, suggest that a hive isn’t divided into hard workers and slackers, but that every worker keeps tabs on the net activity of the colony and adjusts their own activity accordingly to make sure that the colony’s needs are being met. 

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Squirrels Are Probably More Organized Than You, Study Finds
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Despite having a brain that's slightly bigger than the size of a peanut M&M, squirrels have a fascinating, razor-sharp instinct when it comes to survival. They know that acorns that are high in fat and sprout late are perfect for long-term storage, so they salvage them for winter and eat the less nutritionally dense white-oak acorns right away. They also tend to remember where they put their acorn stash rather than relying solely on smell. Like nature's perfect stunt performer, they can even fall out of trees in a way that minimizes physical damage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have unveiled a newly discovered part of a squirrel's hoarding strategy, Atlas Obscura reports.

The researchers tracked 45 wild fox squirrels on the UC-Berkeley campus for nearly two years. They made available to the squirrels four different types of nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Sometimes the animals were given a single type of nut, and other times the nuts were mixed. Either way, the squirrels promptly sorted and stored their food according to type—walnuts went in one hiding place, almonds in another, and so on.

This type of behavior is known as "chunking" and makes it easier to retrieve data in memory. In doing this, a squirrel won't have to visit several different places looking for pecans: They know just where the main supply is. Squirrels can stockpile up to 10,000 nuts a year, so it's essential for them to know which type of nut is where.

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that squirrels seem to understand nuts have weight, choosing to carry heavier acquisitions to a different location than lighter nuts.

Squirrels being squirrels, they were happy to be gifted an assortment of nuts during the experiment, but there was one wrinkle: Rather than stash them away, sometimes they'd just eat them on the spot.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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