Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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25-Jun-2004

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Honeybee air conditioning



Close-up of honey bees with temperature sensor. Image courtesy of Julia Catherine Jones and Malcolm Ricketts, University of Sydney.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Anyone whose air conditioner has broken down on a sweltering summer day should find it easy to appreciate the honeybee's do-it-yourself approach to temperature control. The bees use their wings to fan hot air out of their nest.

Scientists have now discovered that the reason this process works so well is tied to the bees' genes.



Worker bees regulate temperature by fanning hot air out of the nest when the temperature gets too high and clustering together to generate metabolic heat when temperatures are too cool Image courtesy of Julia Catherine Jones and Malcolm Ricketts, University of Sydney.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Honeybees work as a team to regulate temperature in their home by fanning when the temperature gets too high and clustering together to produce body heat when temperatures are too cool. But, the bees don't all go to work at exactly the same time.

Some bees are more sensitive to high temperatures than others, so they start fanning slightly earlier or later than their neighbors. This variation keeps the nest within a comfortable temperature range and prevents the bees from constantly switching back and forth between heating and cooling.



Honey bee comb with temperature sensor. Image courtesy of Julia Catherine Jones and Malcolm Ricketts, University of Sydney.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Honeybee genes also vary a bit from one bee to the next. Scientists have puzzled over what the benefits of such "genetic diversity" might be, and now they have a possible answer.

Julia C. Jones and colleagues in Australia have found that the worker bees' genes help set bees' internal "thermostats." Since the bees' genes are slightly different, so are the set points of their thermostats. Genetic diversity therefore seems to be the explanation for why the bees start fanning at slightly different temperatures.

The researchers describe their discovery in the 25 June 2004 issue of the journal, Science.

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