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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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Scatterbrained
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs
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Dogs: They’re cute, they’re cuddly … and they can smell fear!

Today on Scatterbrained, John Green and friends go beyond the floof to reveal some fascinating facts about our canine pals—including the story of one Bloodhound who helped track down 600 criminals during his lifetime. (Move over, McGruff.) They’re also looking at the name origins of some of your favorite dog breeds, going behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, and dishing the details on how a breed gets to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
iStock

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
iStock

Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
iStock

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
iStock

Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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