winter stupid bees science

Is the winter making us stupid?

If we behaved like bees, perhaps

You don’t have to be a great scientist to notice that in the summer there are plenty of honeybees around, but that during winter they all seem to be totally absent. However, they are still there; the only problem is you won’t see any. Closely nestled against each other the bees are confined to their hive in which they try to keep warm by shivering. While the vast majority of all insects survive the inhospitable season as eggs, pupae or larvae inside the soil, wood or leaves and while a small number of insects outlasts the winter as adults in shelters under the bark of trees, under patches of moss, in stacks of straw or in even human dwellings, the honey bees have their own unique strategy. They create warmth through muscle activity. Even at an outdoor temperature of -30°C, the centre of the cluster of shivering bees inside the hive would be a not exactly comfortable but at least tolerable +15°C warm.

Life under these circumstances for the trembling bees is, however, anything else but pleasant and certainly not varied, exciting or interesting. To leave the hive and fly around, to seek flowers and collect nectar and pollen is out of the question. What counts is to survive and therefore the one thing to do during this challenging period of several months is to remain in the dark and to shiver with occasional visits to the honey bees’ ‘larder’ to ingest some of the sugar fuel that allows the bees to continue to shiver; sugar that was collected during the summer months as nectar and stored in the honey comb cells.

Compared with the impressions that the summer offers in terms of odours, colours, whiffs and breezes encountered during collecting flights, possibilities to communicate, and the excitement of meeting other insects, the winter must be a terribly boring time for the bee. The keen senses of the bees are not at all stimulated and there is evidence that the heads of the bees in winter actually become lighter when compared with those of summer bees. Lighter brains during the stimulus-poor, colder winter season have also reported from some mammals by Dr Weiler and birds by Dr Nottebohm and co-workers and to find out whether the higher weight of the heads of our summer bees in Finland was accompanied by greater brain cell numbers and elevated protein synthesis, we undertook some tests, which allowed us to suggest that during the summer the bees do indeed produce more brain substance than during the winter. Thus, the bees ought to be smarter during the summer.

With regard to birds it was suggested that summer activities like finding a mate, nest building and rearing the young are more demanding tasks of the birds than what the dull winter season has to offer and that therefore a greater brain would make sense. Whether these results are applicable to humans, however, is questionable, given that for us humans the winter season is the time of cultural activities like concerts, theatres, exhibitions, but also of festivals, parties, opulent meals and hangovers – no doubt not at all a boring time and full of challenges. I believe if the honey bees could lead human lives, perhaps their brains would actually be heavier rather than lighter in winter.

stupid winter fun smart

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2016.
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