Honey bees adopt social distancing behavior to reduce transmission of infection within the hive


Honey bees adopt social distancing behavior to reduce transmission of infection within the hive. Social distancing provided an opportunity to limit the spread of infection between humans during the Corona pandemic. Do we see similar biological behavior in the animal world?

Over the past 18 months, humans have become very familiar with the term "social distancing" and how important it is to prevent epidemics. But it seems we're not the only creatures who understand the importance of social distancing, especially when our health is at risk, as research suggests that honeybees do the same. 

Social distancing for honeybees

In the latest study, published in Science Advances on October 29, scientists - at the University of Sassari and the University of Turin in Italy and at University College London) in the UK - show that honeybees increase social distancing the longer their colony is. Under the threat of parasites.

According to the press report published by the EurekAlert website, honeybees react if harmful parasites infect their colony, by adjusting their position and interacting with each other to increase the social distance between young and old.

The discovery provides "the first evidence that honeybees modify their social interactions and how they move in their hive in response to infection with a common parasite," says study co-author Alessandro Cini at the University of London's Center for Biodiversity and Environmental Research.

"Honeybees are a social animal with shared responsibilities and reciprocal social interactions. However, increasing these social activities increases the risk of infection. However, honeybees seem to have developed a mechanism for balancing risks and rewards by adopting social distancing."

Nations like you

Apparently, social distancing behavior is not unusual in the animal world, as we can observe this behavior in many organisms, ranging from baboons that distance themselves from their peers with gastrointestinal infections, to ants infected with pathogenic fungi that distance themselves from ants. communities so as not to infect them.

The recent study was interested in knowing the effect that ectoparasites of the "varroa destroyer" type might have if they infect honey bee colonies. The team initially wondered whether this infection would alter the social organization in the beehive in a way that reduces the spread of parasites within the hive.

The destructive varroa parasite is one of the many stressors that affect honey bee colonies. Varroa mites are a deadly enemy of honeybees, as they cause many harmful effects to both the honey bee and the colony as a whole.

It is known that honey bee colonies are divided into two parts: an outer part inhabited by foragers, and a central inner part occupied by the queen bee, nannies, and brooders. This spatial separation of cell members within the colony reduces interactions between the outer and inner sections of the colony and thus protects more valuable individuals—such as the queen, young,  and brood—from the external environment and protects them from disease.

Repositioning of cell members

The research team identified one behavior that could increase the chances of mite transmission within the colony. After the team compared colonies that were infected with Varroa and those that were not infected with Varroa, they noticed that foraging dances occur less frequently in the central parts of a cell infected with the Varroa parasite. They also observed that grooming behaviors became more concentrated in the central cell.

The researchers explain these behaviors—beekeepers (older honeybees) move toward the edges of the hive, and younger beekeepers position themselves toward the center of the hive in response to infection—with the goal of increasing the distance between the two groups.

"This marked increase in a social distancing between two groups of bees within the same parasite-infested colony shows a surprising new aspect of how honeybees confront parasites and pathogens," said Michalina Posido, study leader at the University of Sassari.

Poseidon concludes, "The ability of bees to adapt their social structure and reduce contact between hive members allows them to maximize the benefits of social interactions whenever possible, as well as protect them from contracting infectious diseases. Therefore, honey bee colonies are an ideal model for studying social distancing and evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of this behavior.".

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