Everyone knows what it is like to be sick. It sucks. You feel tired, your body aches, your temperature goes up, and that can just be the start of your symptoms. But, what happens to insects when they get sick? Do they go through a similar experience? Does it affect their work and how? These are all questions scientists have started asking since our bee population started dropping all over the world. Scientists have done a lot of research trying to discover exactly what is making the bees die, but the one question no has really asked much is what exactly makes them sick. We haven’t looked at the symptoms of these bees to see exactly how their bodies are being affected by what is killing them. We don’t know how it affects their lives on a day-to-day level. Armed with the same questions, Lori Lach and her colleagues decided to find out for themselves.
Lach and her team of researchers decided to attach tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to almost 1,000 bees. Half of the bees were infected with Nosema apis, a non-lethal gut parasite, and the other had a clean bill of health. The process turned out to be a bit trickier at first. The researchers first had to paint the bees different colors so they could tell the healthy bees apart from the sick bees. After this, they fed them, and then glued on the tiny tags. As they still wanted to keep the bees breathing, the researchers couldn’t knock them out too hard, and so had to handle the bees very carefully, and hope they didn’t get upset before the researchers were done outfitting them. “We just had to hold them in our hands and hope the glue dried quickly,” Lach said. On top of that, the bees then had to be individually scanned, so that they could then know which bees had which colors (whether they were sick or healthy) and which hive it would be going back to. “It all had to happen within about eight hours of emergence because as the day goes on they start learning how to fly and they get better at stinging.”
The teams results revealed some interesting facts. The sick bees reacted to being infected in the same way a human does when we are sick with a head cold. The infected bees had much more trouble getting to work (pollinating plants) than the healthy bees, and were 4.3 times more likely to not carry pollen from flowers. They weren’t nearly as productive as their healthy colleagues, and, just like a sick human, often would go home and abandon pollinating flowers early. Of course, they died sooner than their healthy colleagues as well. This new research shows that providing more habitats and eliminating lethal threats may not be the only thing we need to do to save the bees. We could likely need to find a way to keep them healthy as well as alive.
How do you think we humans could help bees become healthier and keep them from getting sick?