Bee Society, Social Interactions – Don't Drink And Fly

We all think of a beehive as a model for cooperative community behavior. Recall that the queen doesn’t rule, she is just there to serve the greater good and will be neglected and left to disappear when the workers decide that she isn’t handing out enough in terms of chemical paychecks.

 The guys have to do their bit in keeping the youngster warm and comfortable until a new queen comes on the scene, and when winter comes, they have to bite the bullet, do the right thing and leave with good grace to give the girls the best chance for a spring break party.

So we imagine the sisterhood to get together and work in harmony without question. But, of course, we can rely on the neuroscientists/psychologists to toss wrenches around near the smooth running machine. This time it is Wright et al who are juggling with wrenches in close proximity to smooth running machinery (1).

In the fall and summer the honeybee lab at Ohio State U captured some eager foragers and fed them one of three unnatural concoctions – a sucrose solution (which is OK as they can break it down to glucose and fructose), a 5% ethyl alcohol in sucrose solution and a 10% ethyl alcohol in sucrose. The latter two are like beer and wine respectively.

It’s bad enough watching drunken bees behaving badly, but we need to be aware that bees don’t metabolize alcohol as well as we do, so you need to crank your sympathy rating up at this point.

Normally bees interact by brushing antennae, exchanging food as well as opening and closing their mandibles. The authors thought that the latter behavior was a form of aggression, but who knows, nobody heard any bad words exchanged.

Well, down to the results. The experimenters found that the more inebriated the bees the less they got close up and friendly with either offering to exchange food or asking for some. In addition, there was a great deal more mandible opening and closing, but no fights seemed to break out.

Unfortunately, when nestmates exchanged food with inebriates, they in turn became inebriated. The higher the alcohol content of the feed, the bigger the problem. No surprises there.  Some bees were starved and they were more likely to ask for food, but dispensed with some of the antenna rubbing and mandible opening.

So what are the conclusions? Hungry bees are more likely to beg for food and dispense with some of the niceties. Inebriated bees are more likely to forget about the niceties too, but are more likely to threaten with opening their mandibles. Not that different from us after all.

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