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Honeybees Dodge Parasites with Social Distancing

Honeybee in flight

Peter Waters/AdobeStock.com

A study by University College London and the University of Sassari (Italy) published in Science Advances shows that honeybee colonies respond to infestation from harmful mites by varying space and interaction in the hive to increase social distance between the younger and older insects. Co-author Dr. Alessandro Cini says, “Honeybees are a social animal, as they benefit from dividing up responsibilities and interactions such as mutual grooming, but when those social activities can increase the risk of infection, the bees appear to have evolved to balance the risks and benefits by adopting social distancing.”

The study assessed the presence of the ectoparasite mite Varroa destructor, which causes harmful effects at the colony level, including virus transmission. Lead author Dr. Michelina Pusceddu says, “Their ability to adapt their social structure and reduce contact between individuals in response to a disease threat allows them to maximize the benefits of social interactions where possible and to minimize the risk of infectious disease when needed. Honeybee colonies provide an ideal model for studying social distancing and for fully understanding the value and effectiveness of this behavior.”

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