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Concept: Honey bee


Large-scale losses of honey bee colonies represent a poorly understood problem of global importance. Both biotic and abiotic factors are involved in this phenomenon that is often associated with high loads of parasites and pathogens. A stronger impact of pathogens in honey bees exposed to neonicotinoid insecticides has been reported, but the causal link between insecticide exposure and the possible immune alteration of honey bees remains elusive. Here, we demonstrate that the neonicotinoid insecticide clothianidin negatively modulates NF-κB immune signaling in insects and adversely affects honey bee antiviral defenses controlled by this transcription factor. We have identified in insects a negative modulator of NF-κB activation, which is a leucine-rich repeat protein. Exposure to clothianidin, by enhancing the transcription of the gene encoding this inhibitor, reduces immune defenses and promotes the replication of the deformed wing virus in honey bees bearing covert infections. This honey bee immunosuppression is similarly induced by a different neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, but not by the organophosphate chlorpyriphos, which does not affect NF-κB signaling. The occurrence at sublethal doses of this insecticide-induced viral proliferation suggests that the studied neonicotinoids might have a negative effect at the field level. Our experiments uncover a further level of regulation of the immune response in insects and set the stage for studies on neural modulation of immunity in animals. Furthermore, this study has implications for the conservation of bees, as it will contribute to the definition of more appropriate guidelines for testing chronic or sublethal effects of pesticides used in agriculture.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Evolution, Insect, Vaccination, Honey bee, Insecticide, Neonicotinoid


Wild and managed bees are well documented as effective pollinators of global crops of economic importance. However, the contributions by pollinators other than bees have been little explored despite their potential to contribute to crop production and stability in the face of environmental change. Non-bee pollinators include flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, ants, birds, and bats, among others. Here we focus on non-bee insects and synthesize 39 field studies from five continents that directly measured the crop pollination services provided by non-bees, honey bees, and other bees to compare the relative contributions of these taxa. Non-bees performed 25-50% of the total number of flower visits. Although non-bees were less effective pollinators than bees per flower visit, they made more visits; thus these two factors compensated for each other, resulting in pollination services rendered by non-bees that were similar to those provided by bees. In the subset of studies that measured fruit set, fruit set increased with non-bee insect visits independently of bee visitation rates, indicating that non-bee insects provide a unique benefit that is not provided by bees. We also show that non-bee insects are not as reliant as bees on the presence of remnant natural or seminatural habitat in the surrounding landscape. These results strongly suggest that non-bee insect pollinators play a significant role in global crop production and respond differently than bees to landscape structure, probably making their crop pollination services more robust to changes in land use. Non-bee insects provide a valuable service and provide potential insurance against bee population declines.

Concepts: Insect, Honey bee, Pollination, Flower, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator, Pollinators


Visual abilities of the honey bee have been studied for more than 100 years, recently revealing unexpectedly sophisticated cognitive skills rivalling those of vertebrates. However, the physiological limits of the honey bee eye have been largely unaddressed and only studied in an unnatural, dark state. Using a bright display and intracellular recordings, we here systematically investigated the angular sensitivity across the light adapted eye of honey bee foragers. Angular sensitivity is a measure of photoreceptor receptive field size and thus small values indicate higher visual acuity. Our recordings reveal a fronto-ventral acute zone in which angular sensitivity falls below 1.9°, some 30% smaller than previously reported. By measuring receptor noise and responses to moving dark objects, we also obtained direct measures of the smallest features detectable by the retina. In the frontal eye, single photoreceptors respond to objects as small as 0.6° × 0.6°, with >99% reliability. This indicates that honey bee foragers possess significantly better resolution than previously reported or estimated behaviourally, and commonly assumed in modelling of bee acuity.

Concepts: Insect, Retina, Eye, Photoreceptor cell, Visual acuity, Honey bee, Receptive field, Rod cell


The causes of bee declines remain hotly debated, particularly the contribution of neonicotinoid insecticides. In 2013 the UK’s Food & Environment Research Agency made public a study of the impacts of exposure of bumblebee colonies to neonicotinoids. The study concluded that there was no clear relationship between colony performance and pesticide exposure, and the study was subsequently cited by the UK government in a policy paper in support of their vote against a proposed moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids. Here I present a simple re-analysis of this data set. It demonstrates that these data in fact do show a negative relationship between both colony growth and queen production and the levels of neonicotinoids in the food stores collected by the bees. Indeed, this is the first study describing substantial negative impacts of neonicotinoids on colony performance of any bee species with free-flying bees in a field realistic situation where pesticide exposure is provided only as part of normal farming practices. It strongly suggests that wild bumblebee colonies in farmland can be expected to be adversely affected by exposure to neonicotinoids.

Concepts: Insect, Honey bee, Pollinator decline, Bee, Bumblebee, Insecticide, Neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid


Alarm communication is a key adaptation that helps social groups resist predation and rally defenses. In Asia, the world’s largest hornet, Vespa mandarinia, and the smaller hornet, Vespa velutina, prey upon foragers and nests of the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. We attacked foragers and colony nest entrances with these predators and provide the first evidence, in social insects, of an alarm signal that encodes graded danger and attack context. We show that, like Apis mellifera, A. cerana possesses a vibrational “stop signal,” which can be triggered by predator attacks upon foragers and inhibits waggle dancing. Large hornet attacks were more dangerous and resulted in higher bee mortality. Per attack at the colony level, large hornets elicited more stop signals than small hornets. Unexpectedly, stop signals elicited by large hornets (SS large hornet) had a significantly higher vibrational fundamental frequency than those elicited by small hornets (SS small hornet) and were more effective at inhibiting waggle dancing. Stop signals resulting from attacks upon the nest entrance (SS nest) were produced by foragers and guards and were significantly longer in pulse duration than stop signals elicited by attacks upon foragers (SS forager). Unlike SS forager, SS nest were targeted at dancing and non-dancing foragers and had the common effect, tuned to hornet threat level, of inhibiting bee departures from the safe interior of the nest. Meanwhile, nest defenders were triggered by the bee alarm pheromone and live hornet presence to heat-ball the hornet. In A. cerana, sophisticated recruitment communication that encodes food location, the waggle dance, is therefore matched with an inhibitory/alarm signal that encodes information about the context of danger and its threat level.

Concepts: Insect, Predation, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Apis cerana, Hornet, Asian giant hornet, European hornet


This study measured part of the in-hive pesticide exposome by analyzing residues from live in-hive bees, stored pollen, and wax in migratory colonies over time and compared exposure to colony health. We summarized the pesticide burden using three different additive methods: (1) the hazard quotient (HQ), an estimate of pesticide exposure risk, (2) the total number of pesticide residues, and (3) the number of relevant residues. Despite being simplistic, these models attempt to summarize potential risk from multiple contaminations in real-world contexts. Colonies performing pollination services were subject to increased pesticide exposure compared to honey-production and holding yards. We found clear links between an increase in the total number of products in wax and colony mortality. In particular, we found that fungicides with particular modes of action increased disproportionally in wax within colonies that died. The occurrence of queen events, a significant risk factor for colony health and productivity, was positively associated with all three proxies of pesticide exposure. While our exposome summation models do not fully capture the complexities of pesticide exposure, they nonetheless help elucidate their risks to colony health. Implementing and improving such models can help identify potential pesticide risks, permitting preventative actions to improve pollinator health.

Concepts: Insect, Risk, Risk management, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Pesticide, Pollination, Pollinator decline


Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) use information from surrounding electric fields to make foraging decisions. Electroreception in air, a nonconductive medium, is a recently discovered sensory capacity of insects, yet the sensory mechanisms remain elusive. Here, we investigate two putative electric field sensors: antennae and mechanosensory hairs. Examining their mechanical and neural response, we show that electric fields cause deflections in both antennae and hairs. Hairs respond with a greater median velocity, displacement, and angular displacement than antennae. Extracellular recordings from the antennae do not show any electrophysiological correlates to these mechanical deflections. In contrast, hair deflections in response to an electric field elicited neural activity. Mechanical deflections of both hairs and antennae increase with the electric charge carried by the bumblebee. From this evidence, we conclude that sensory hairs are a site of electroreception in the bumblebee.

Concepts: Electromagnetism, Electric charge, Electromagnetic field, Honey bee, Bee, Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, Bumblebees


Central place foragers, such as pollinating bees, typically develop circuits (traplines) to visit multiple foraging sites in a manner that minimizes overall travel distance. Despite being taxonomically widespread, these routing behaviours remain poorly understood due to the difficulty of tracking the foraging history of animals in the wild. Here we examine how bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) develop and optimise traplines over large spatial scales by setting up an array of five artificial flowers arranged in a regular pentagon (50 m side length) and fitted with motion-sensitive video cameras to determine the sequence of visitation. Stable traplines that linked together all the flowers in an optimal sequence were typically established after a bee made 26 foraging bouts, during which time only about 20 of the 120 possible routes were tried. Radar tracking of selected flights revealed a dramatic decrease by 80% (ca. 1500 m) of the total travel distance between the first and the last foraging bout. When a flower was removed and replaced by a more distant one, bees engaged in localised search flights, a strategy that can facilitate the discovery of a new flower and its integration into a novel optimal trapline. Based on these observations, we developed and tested an iterative improvement heuristic to capture how bees could learn and refine their routes each time a shorter route is found. Our findings suggest that complex dynamic routing problems can be solved by small-brained animals using simple learning heuristics, without the need for a cognitive map.

Concepts: Honey bee, Pollination, Flower, Pollinator decline, Pollination syndrome, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator


Recently, the widespread distribution of pesticides detected in the hive has raised serious concerns about pesticide exposure on honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) health. A larval rearing method was adapted to assess the chronic oral toxicity to honey bee larvae of the four most common pesticides detected in pollen and wax - fluvalinate, coumaphos, chlorothalonil, and chloropyrifos - tested alone and in all combinations. All pesticides at hive-residue levels triggered a significant increase in larval mortality compared to untreated larvae by over two fold, with a strong increase after 3 days of exposure. Among these four pesticides, honey bee larvae were most sensitive to chlorothalonil compared to adults. Synergistic toxicity was observed in the binary mixture of chlorothalonil with fluvalinate at the concentrations of 34 mg/L and 3 mg/L, respectively; whereas, when diluted by 10 fold, the interaction switched to antagonism. Chlorothalonil at 34 mg/L was also found to synergize the miticide coumaphos at 8 mg/L. The addition of coumaphos significantly reduced the toxicity of the fluvalinate and chlorothalonil mixture, the only significant non-additive effect in all tested ternary mixtures. We also tested the common ‘inert’ ingredient N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone at seven concentrations, and documented its high toxicity to larval bees. We have shown that chronic dietary exposure to a fungicide, pesticide mixtures, and a formulation solvent have the potential to impact honey bee populations, and warrants further investigation. We suggest that pesticide mixtures in pollen be evaluated by adding their toxicities together, until complete data on interactions can be accumulated.

Concepts: Insect, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Pesticide, Bee, Apidae, Neurotoxicity, Stingless bee


Illegal drugs exacerbate global social challenges such as substance addiction, mental health issues and violent crime. Police and customs officials often rely on specially-trained sniffer dogs, which act as sensitive biological detectors to find concealed illegal drugs. However, the dog “alert” is no longer sufficient evidence to allow a search without a warrant or additional probable cause because cannabis has been legalized in two US states and is decriminalized in many others. Retraining dogs to recognize a narrower spectrum of drugs is difficult and training new dogs is time consuming, yet there are no analytical devices with the portability and sensitivity necessary to detect substance-specific chemical signatures. This means there is currently no substitute for sniffer dogs. Here we describe an insect screening procedure showing that the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) can sense volatiles associated with pure samples of heroin and cocaine. We developed a portable electroantennographic device for the on-site measurement of volatile perception by these insects, and found a positive correlation between honeybee antennal responses and the concentration of specific drugs in test samples. Furthermore, we tested the ability of honeybees to learn the scent of heroin and trained them to show a reliable behavioral response in the presence of a highly-diluted scent of pure heroin. Trained honeybees could therefore be used to complement or replace the role of sniffer dogs as part of an automated drug detection system. Insects are highly sensitive to volatile compounds and provide an untapped resource for the development of biosensors. Automated conditioning as presented in this study could be developed as a platform for the practical detection of illicit drugs using insect-based sensors.

Concepts: Insect, Drug, European honey bee, Honey bee, Morphine, Drug addiction, Heroin, Illegal drug trade