October 27, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Bees Make Beeline to the Headlines

The science journals and media were abuzz with honeybee stories this week.  We counted 18 press releases and half a dozen research papers related to aspects of honeybees, including the publication of the honeybee genome.  Many research labs seem to have gotten into the act of figuring out what makes bees tick.  The major stories are summarized below.

  1. Bee Genes:  Nature published the honeybee genome this week.  This is important not only to entomologists, but to social scientists interested in the unique social structure of these insects, and to ecologists and agriculturalists interested in the economic importance of honeybees as pollinators.  Summaries of the genome report can be found on EurekAlert, Science Daily, CSIRO, National Geographic.  Another EurekAlert story contains links to other research papers.  Surprisingly, bees seem to have fewer protein-coding genes than other insects.
  2. Bee Gems:  A fossil bee in amber claimed to be 100 million years old, 35-45 million years older than the previous record holder, was announced in Science.  Though it was predominantly bee-like in morphology, researchers claim it had some wasp-like characteristics that hinted of a common ancestry.  They’re claiming that the emergence of honeybees corresponded to the explosion of flowering plants.  Reports about this can be found on EurekAlert, Live Science, Science Daily, National Geographic and the BBC News.  The amber-imprisoned insect was in “remarkable condition, showing individual hairs on undamaged portions of its thorax, legs, abdomen and head. The legs and wings are clearly visible,” according to an Oregon State press release.
  3. Beehavior:  EurekAlert reported on work at Arizona State attempting to explain the complex foraging behavior of bees from data in the genome.
  4. Bee on time:  EurekAlert has a story about researchers at Hebrew University that found a surprise: “Biological clock of honey bee more similar to humans than to insects.”  Dr. Guy Bloch said, “Discovering that molecular characteristics of the biological clock in bees is closer to the biological clock of mammals than that of flies was a big surprise, since previously it had been thought that there is one type of clock that is typical of insects and another typical of mammals.  These results change our understanding of the evolution of circadian clocks.”
  5. Out of Africa:  A press release from UC Irvine and a EurekAlert echo of work from University of Illinois claim that the bee genome shows that bees first emerged in Africa.  This is based on a paper in Nature Oct. 26.
  6. Bee brain chemistry:  U of Illinois scientists are also figuring out the peptides in bee brains, reported EurekAlert.  A second EurekAlert story discussed findings about the chemoreceptors bees use to detect tastes and smells.  Apparently bees beat out fruit flies and mosquitos in smell receptors, but don’t have as much tasting equipment – surprising, considering their life around nectar.  Interesting fact: “There are a million neurons in the brain of a honey bee (Apis mellifera), a brain not much larger than the size of the period at the end of this sentence.”
  7. Pollen nation:  The importance of pollination (principally by honeybees) was discussed in Science Daily and a press release from UC Berkeley.  The second article contains images of how much better fruits develop when pollinated by insects instead of wind or self-pollination.

Scientific papers on these topics could be found this week in Nature, Science, Current Biology and PNAS.

There’s way too much material here to digest; links are provided for those who wish to follow up.  As usual, evolutionary storytelling occurs side-by-side with amazing observational facts about these marvelous insects.
    We may get afraid of the occasional bee that hovers over our picnic plate, but the wealth in our supermarkets depends on them.  Most won’t sting you if you don’t startle them.  Take the time to get to know honeybees.  They really are spectacular creations.  Imagine a million neurons, coded with biological clocks and social instincts and flight software, all packed into a brain as tiny as a period on a sentence.  Evolutionists claim they have changed little in 100 million years, even after coming out of Africa once upon a time and taking over the world and causing an explosion in flowering plant diversity.  Let’s help science once again focus on facts, not fables.

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