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Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-2.5

Why Worker Bees Don’t Have Babies

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Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-2.5

Honeybees are great. They’re important pollinators, industrious honey-makers, and they’re darn cute (just look at that fuzzy body!). But you don’t get to be as successful as they are without making some brutal choices. Those efficient, humming colonies of theirs are ruled by rigid, hierarchical laws that determine who can eat, who can leave, and who can reproduce. Exactly how those laws were enforced has long been a subject of great interest to scientists, and now one team of researchers say they’ve figured out how exactly the queen keeps her workers’ fertility in check. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications

An individual bee’s behavior (bee-havior?) is subject to all kinds of influences, whether it be the waggle dance of a returning forager, the electrical messages put out by a flower, or the many chemical signals drifting through hive air. One notable signal is queen mandibular pheromone, or QMP. QMP is an astonishingly versatile compound. It tells drone bees when the queen is ready to mate, induces the colony to swarm, and can destroy the ovaries of worker bees to keep them from getting busy. Pretty impressive, right? 

Previous studies in fruit flies had found a link between the flies’ egg production and a cellular pathway called the Notch. To find out if the same pathway had any involvement in honeybees' egg shutdown, evolutionary biologists at New Zealand’s University of Otago treated some workers with a chemical that suppressed any Notch activity and left other workers’ Notch signaling intact. Then all the bees were exposed to typical levels of QMP. The researchers killed the bees, then examined their ovaries to see what had happened. 

Sure enough, the ovaries of bees with normal Notch function were damaged by the QMP. But before their deaths, the blocked-Notch bees had been humming along just fine; many of their ovaries contained fully developed eggs.

Additional tests on the bees confirmed a strong bond between Notch and QMP. When worker bees were left to their own devices and not exposed to a queen or her pheromones, their Notch receptors gradually degenerated. Without a queen, the workers' fertility was unfettered.

The researchers were surprised to see just how early in the reproductive process Notch could make a difference. Speaking in a press statement, co-author Peter Dearden said they’re still not sure if the pheromone attacks the ovary directly or works through the brain.

"However it is acting, the outcome is that Notch signaling's fundamental role in the ovary has been modified and transformed in honeybees into social control of worker bees' reproduction," he said. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:


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