Posted by: gallfungus | December 2, 2010

Altruistic suicide in honey bees.

Although our lab works with eusocial insects, and I think they are really interesting, sometimes I find myself grappling with exactly WHY eusociality is important. (Not to be confused with the importance of “Eusociality” the lab member/blog author. Of course you are important!)

But then I remember things like this catastrophe, and I have one of those “aha!” moments in which everything sort of lines up.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a HUGE deal, if you can’t tell from that news story. And the social constructs of honey bees are key to understanding why this happens and how to prevent it (Note: although the cause of CCD has been linked to the concurrent infection by a fungal pathogen and a virus, there are other symptoms and triggers of the disease that have yet to be explored. For more information on the fungal/viral connection with CCD see the paper “Iridovirus and Microsporidian Linked to Honey Bee Colony Decline”).

I recently read another paper that dealt with a phenomenon that could be the reason why massive proportions of the honey bee colony desert their hive, a symptom of CCD. This behavior is a form of extreme altruism in honey bees that involves a worker committing altruistic suicide if they become cognizant of some sort of decrease in their own health and vitality, whether by fungal infection, CO2 exposure, or hydroxyurea consumption. In order to reduce the chance of transmitting a possible pathogen to their colony, bees (as well as other social insects such as ants) will abandon their normal social function and remove themselves from the colony.  The paper was able to control for the potential alternative explanations of the experimental treatments of host manipulation, disorientation, and lack of mental function (possible side-effects of the various treatments) and support their hypothesis that this behavior was actually adaptive!

I highly recommend this paper; it is “Altruistic self-removal of health-compromised honey bee workers from their hive” by O. Rueppell, M.K. Hayworth & N.P Ross. It can be found here:

Also, you should watch this video. Because it is related. And awesome.

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  1. Maybe tin body-hats for bees will be need to be mass produced.

  2. [...] obscuripes took a fairly esoteric look at the nature of doing science, gallfungus told us about altruistic suicide in honeybees, eusociality did the official Abbot Lab recap of the arsenophile bacterium, bossbug chimed in to [...]

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