Bee confused

Far from being avid shift workers, young honeybees are quite hopeless when it comes to timekeeping

Published: Tuesday 15 September 1998

BEES may be busy, but are not always the avid shift workers that scientists have long presumed them to be.

American entomologists have found that young honeybees work and rest at completely random times, unlike older, foraging bees, who have a distinct internal rhythm. They even get jet-lag if flown overseas.

Young bees stay in the hive, feeding their siblings, nursing the queen and doing the usual cleaning chores like keeping the hive tidy. The teams led by Darrell Moore of East Tennessee State University in Johnston, USA, and Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois in Urbana, USA, wanted to see whether there is a rhythm to these tasks. "Who's rearing the brood? Who's doing the midnight shift?" asked Robinson.

The researchers studied two groups of 100 honeybees, each from genetically distinct types of Apis mellifera. One strain matures early, while the other develops late.

After watching the colour-coded bees at three-hour intervals day and night for up to 16 days, they found that there was no pattern to the bees' work in the hive. They simply worked for a while, paused, and then started working again. Even activities that were related to foraging, such as inspecting and capping honey cells, were not done according to any schedule. This finding demolishes the accepted theory that bees always keep regular hours.

However, two activities - standing still and lying motionless in a cell - did start to develop a rhythm as the bees matured, the researchers observed. And this pattern, they say, became increasingly pronounced.

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