Thirsty siblings beg for a drop.
When scorching weather gets too hot to handle for a honeybee hive, dedicated “water collector” bees set out on their mission. One they’ve located a water source and slurped up as much as they can, these water specialists fly back home and regurgitate the liquid for the rest of the bees to suck up and spit out around the hive, cooling it down.
Researchers at Cornell University were curious how water collector bees can detect when the colony is thirsty. “Water collectors do not spend much, if any, time in the broodnest, and yet somehow they know when to start collecting water to control its temperature,” says Thomas Seeley, co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, in a news release.
Using heat lamps, the researchers turned up the heat on two glass-walled hives in the lab, but they saw no response from the water foragers — not until the worker bees began begging by “walking up to the face of another bee, contacting the bee's antennae with her own and then extending her tongue between the mouthparts of the other bee,” the release explains.
The begging prompted the water collectors to spring to action. Their water-retrieval efforts ended up restoring the hive’s temperature below the lethal threshold that can cause bee larvae to dehydrate and die.
Most of the water got spread around the hive, but a few bees were found to stockpile it in the brood comb, and some even continued to store water in their bellies. “We called them the ‘water bottle bees’,” says Seeley.
As the authors write, their range of behaviors, from water collection to water storage, allows the bees “not only to satisfy their colony's current water needs but also to buffer their colony against future extreme water stresses.”
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