Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Light Therapy Could Help Bees Recover From Pesticides

Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

The world’s bees are in crisis, beset by a daunting variety of threats. Humans are at least partially responsible for the bees’ decline, but we’re also hoping to be responsible for their rescue. Now scientists have found one way to protect them. Writing in the journal PLOS One, they report that treating hives with red light can help bees recover from pesticide exposure.

About ten years ago, beekeepers began reporting mass die-offs and disappearances from their hives. In many places, it appeared as though the bees had simply been raptured; hive boxes were empty but there were no bodies to be found.

One of the first suspects in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), as it came to be called, was a parasite called the varroa mite. But even the ravenous, invasive mite couldn’t make bees disappear, so scientists began looking for other clues. Their search led them in a number of different directions, including toward a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. All pesticides are, by design, bad for bugs, but neonicotinoids have an especially nasty effect on bees, causing them to forget to eat and even where they live. They also curtail the production of an energy-carrying molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), weakening the bees and keeping them from flying.

In light of this information, environmental agencies in some countries have banned neonicotinoid pesticides altogether. Others are holding out and leaving the bees to fend for themselves.

But they’re not completely alone. Researchers at University College London (UCL) have been developing a treatment that may help bees bounce back from pesticide exposure. They knew from previous studies that infrared light could help slow and heal cellular breakdown, so they decided to try it out with sick bees.

They set up four hives. For 10 days, the researchers exposed two of the colonies (let’s call them A and B) to a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid, while the other two (C and D) were left alone. During the same period, they exposed hives A and C to infrared light twice a day for 15 minutes.

As expected, the poisoned bees in hive B did not fare well. Their survival rate and ATP levels dropped. With no poison and no light treatment, the unmolested inhabitants of hive D were just fine. But so were the bees in hive A. They were hale and hearty, moving around and living their lives as though they’d never been poisoned. The light was clearly doing them good. It also offered a boost to the healthy bees in hive C, whose survival rates were even higher.

Co-author Glen Jeffery is a visual neuroscientist at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology. He and his team were encouraged by their results, and say a simple infrared light in hive boxes could be all that’s needed. Not only does the light help damaged bees heal, but it can even protect those who have never been exposed. It’s “an effective means of preventing loss of life in case a colony becomes exposed to neonicotinoids,” Jeffery said in a press statement. “It's win-win."

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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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