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Unlike Ants, Urban Bees May Prefer a Natural Diet

Between the destruction of open spaces and the rise of urban beekeeping, former country bees are finding themselves in the city a lot these days. Fortunately, the change of scenery might not be impacting their diets too much; researchers say that city bees generally stick to drinking flower nectar, even in the presence of spilled soda. Their study was published in the Journal of Urban Ecology.

Clint Penick is a biologist at NC State University. He’s especially interested in learning about how social insects like bees and ants adapt to new surroundings or circumstances. In 2013, Penick and his colleagues collected ants from the parks, sidewalks, and traffic medians of Manhattan to find out what the ants were eating. 

The answer, unsurprisingly, was garbage—or, more specifically, the remains of junk food. The half-eaten cheeseburgers of city dwellers are so plentiful and calorie-laden that the ants had turned away from their usual diet of dead bugs. 

Would the same be true for urban bees? The researchers decided to find out. They collected honeybees from 39 colonies (24 belonging to beekeepers, and 15 wild) in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the surrounding region. They then tested the bees the same way they’d tested the ants: by looking at stable isotopes in the bugs’ bodies. Everything we eat leaves a chemical signature behind. Foods made from sugarcane and from corn, including corn syrup, have a unique effect on a body’s carbon levels. By looking at a bee’s carbon-13 isotopes, researchers could tell if that bee had been eating people food.

Overall, the bees appeared to be sticking to a fairly natural diet. “Basically, bees are relying on flowers in cities and are not turning to human foods to supplement their diet,” Penick said in a press statement. “This is good news for urban beekeepers. The honey in their hives is mostly coming from flower nectar and not old soda, which is what we originally guessed.” 

The researchers note that this study took place in a mid-sized city and not, say, Manhattan, where the ants were tested. “Even the most urban areas of Raleigh have more than 50 percent open green space,” Penick said. “By comparison, the average site in New York City has only 10 percent green space. So more work needs to be done to evaluate bee diets in our largest cities.”

 

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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