They make sweet deliciousness for your tummy, they're responsible for most of the fruit you eat and they kill more people worldwide than sharks, snakes, ninjas and Australia combined. The buzz right now is all about bees. They're vitally important to agriculture, and they're dying mysteriously all over the world. But if you thought that flitting around flowers and falling over dead were the only things bees were good at, then you are sorely misinformed, friend. These insects possess a vast array of astounding abilities. Bees kick seven different kinds of ass, because they have ...
Bees are in tune with electricity in lots of unique ways. First, they can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate, which is cool, but not exactly rare (cows and fish can figure out which way north is based on the Earth's magnetic field, and as a rule, anything that a cow can do isn't impressive).
Reuters via Foxnews.com
See a cow looking like this, and you know it's going to be followed by a mercy shooting.
Bees decided to take this ability a step further. Not only can they tap into the geomagnetic field of the planet, but they can also sense the electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere that precede thunderstorms. Sensing the static in the air, bees know to high-tail it home well before a storm arrives. Bees are so hypersensitive to electricity that electrically charged particles have been shown to affect a bee's appetite and screw up its navigation.
One study concluded that bees detect electric fields on the quantum frigging level. Part of the reason for this sensitivity is that bees carry around their own electrical field. When bees buzz, their wings produce a strong negative charge, and being furry little bastards, this static will build up like socks (or cats) in a dryer. Besides zapping siblings on the ear, they use this charge to harvest food ... magnetically.
"I DON'T HAVE A PROBLEM, STOP JUDGING ME!"
Bees make honey out of pollen. Pollen, as everyone knows, is plant sperm, and it has a natural positive charge. So when a negative bee rolls up to a new flower engorged with positive love dust, the stuff practically leaps onto it. Bees utilize the power of static cling to harvest plant jizz (in case all of this talk of positive charges was too sciencey for you). In fact, these "flying dust mops" are so good at collecting particulates that they're being studied for a wide range of applications, from spreading insecticides to searching for bombs.
After primates, bees have the most complex language out of any animal, and they even have a fairly advanced form of dance-based sign language, something no other insects come even close to having. That's a fact. (Suck it, ants.) They communicate in "an abstract, symbolic way" that we're only just beginning to understand, and they look fly as shit while doing it, because bees communicate with interpretive dance. Through their "waggling" and shaking, scouts can report the distance and direction of food sources over 3 miles away. The directions are accurate to within about 15 feet. They also explain how good the getting is and whether the area is dangerous. It's like a Hokey Pokey version of MapQuest.
Can you see the weird happy face?
Bees use choreographed triangulation. A scout can tell you how far away food is, how rich it is and in what direction you'd need to travel to get there, all through the sexy language of dance-talking. How do scientists know all of this? How did they crack the bees' language? Researchers superglued small antennae on a few bugs and tracked them through radar to confirm that, yes, most bees are fluent in the language of dance. You could barely tell that the antennae were there.
BBSRC/Rothamsted Research via Livescience.com
"Bravo 14, we're in the shit -- repeat, we're in the shit! Send air support ASAP, I'm not dying in this fucking jungle!"
But that's not the only thing bees dance-talk about. When it's time to move to a new hive, the scouts will go house hunting. They'll dance around to give directions and encourage other scouts to go look at a new location. Research has shown that a bee consensus is reached at around 15. When a bee starts buzzing around a new hive, that means that it has cast its vote for the joint. When 15 votes are in for a new home, the decision has been reached and they all head home to tell the others.
But what happens if other scouts are still dancing in favor of a different hive? They get headbutted and will continue to get headbutted until they quiet down. Scouts will also knock heads with other scouts who are giving out directions to dangerous food locations. In bee language, as in human communication, a headbutt to the face means shut the hell up.
Bees are the only bugs we get food from. They're like little striped cows with wings. On top of its yumminess, honey has a number of other astounding abilities. It never goes bad, ever, and it has some incredible antibacterial properties. It's been used to treat wounds since before recorded history. And honey made from the manuka bush of Australia and New Zealand is so effective that it's being tested for use in hospitals to treat wounds, sterilize equipment and even fight cancer. How many diseases have milk and eggs cured today?
At least mad cow disease is less terrifying than mad bee disease.
But honey is just one of the many substances that bees make. In fact, just about everything that comes out of a bee has been shown to fight cancer, including bee venom, royal jelly and propolis. What is propolis? It's a substance that bees make to patch the hive with, and injecting these substances directly into tumors leads to significant shrinkage. There's no alchemy or chemistry to it: Researchers are just squirting various bee juices directly into cancerous growths and getting results. Besides its use in combating tumors, bee venom is also being used to treat muscular dystrophy, depression and dementia, and it causes the nerves in the brain to "become hyperexcitable, producing improved learning."
"Now you take this up to your room, and don't you come out until you've learned math!"
Ants are renowned for being able to carry 50 times their own weight, which is impressive until you realize that bees can easily tote 122 times their own weight. Oh, and they can fly, too. In the air, they can carry their own weight in pollen, and while bees typically forage between 1 and 3 miles from the hive, experiments show that they can find their way home from 8 miles away.
Which makes them officially more intelligent than the average person with a dead smartphone.
And let's talk about bee flight for a minute. Bee aerodynamics actually sucks pretty hard. Because defying gravity takes a lot of energy, being streamlined and efficient is a must, which is why most other flying animals try to cut through the air as cleanly as possible. Stupid fat bees don't really give a shit about any of that. Their wings don't move at the same time, the delicate mechanisms propelling a bee through the air aren't even in sync and they fly clumsily and in a way that burns a lot of energy.
Richard Bomphrey via Sciencedaily.com
Does anyone else hear cartoony tuba music when they see this picture, or is that just us?
The crazy thing? They somehow make it work for themselves. Despite being poorly designed, hovering tanker trucks, bees can make as many as a hundred stops before heading home and can travel nearly 40 miles on one belly full of honey. The most fuel-efficient car in the world can get 170 miles per gallon. Give a bee a gallon of honey and he could make it nearly 5 million miles.
Most insects just shut down or die when it gets cold, because the ability to thermoregulate is typically a mammalian trait. But bees have worked out an ingenious heating system for themselves, as well as the whole hive. These industrious bugs can crank up the thermostat by as much as 35 degrees Celsius. In times of cold, bees can disengage their wings and turn on just their wing muscles to warm up. They have a neutral gear that lets them rev up the engine for heat -- it's like running in place without moving your legs. The ability to control their temperature means that bees can forage when it's still too cold for competitors and predators, and it also allows them to heat their hives in the winter to keep them cozy even in freezing temperatures, effectively acting like live mini heaters. And if it gets too hot during the summer, a few of the workers will line up and flap their wings to fan everyone, becoming living ceiling fans.
But that's not the only thing our feisty flower fondlers do with their command over ambient temperatures. When bees face an overwhelming threat, like the dreaded Asian giant hornet, their normal defenses are useless. Their small stingers are not strong enough to pierce the hornet's exoskeleton. So instead, the bees will Zerg rush the offending hornet with a technique called balling. By encapsulating the invader in a living sphere of sweaty, writhing bodies, the bees can smother it by cranking up the heat and the carbon dioxide. With 500 gyrating bees all clumped together, they'll raise the temperature to 117 degrees Fahrenheit, literally cooking the wasp. Alone, an individual bee is almost helpless, but when they combine in Voltron-like fashion, they become a living microwave oven. Balling ... it's not just for hustlers and porn stars anymore.
A. Ugajin et al, PLoS One via National Geographic
"Speaking of porn, we do freelance merkin work, too."
We think of insects as tiny little automatons programmed to perform a task. They're too small to think. They cannot reflect on the world around them. They likely have a very limited memory. And certainly they don't possess the psychological depth needed for emotions. They're just a bunch of spinning, biting and stinging dummies. Dumb, dumb asshole dummies.
Man, your mom must really hate you.
However, new research is turning our conception of intelligence on its head.
Although bees are tiny, they have "the most densely packed gray matter of any animal" in the world. This compact little brain has given them the ability to count up to four and remember those numbers later on. Four might not seem like a lot (in fact it isn't), but they're the only bugs who can do anything close to counting. Bees also beat supercomputers when it comes to solving the traveling salesman problem.
"The answer is four. Now fuck off so I can do my job!"
We like to think that bees are mindless, identical drones, but new studies suggest that they have different personalities and emotions. Some buzz jockeys are thrill seekers who are more willing to take risks than their supposedly identical siblings. Other studies have shown that bees become pessimistic and get depressed when scientists torment them. Pessimism was thought to be a trait reserved for "higher" animals: "You can't be pessimistic if you don't have an inner life." And if they can despair, does that mean that they can hope, too? If you can be pessimistic, doesn't that mean that you can also be optimistic? It's a little scary to think that these tiny creatures might have aspirations and dreams. Fortunately, researchers have figured out how to strip bees of all hope to leave them despondent wrecks. Chalk up another win for science.