Sleepless Honey Bees Miscommunicate, Too, Research at The University of Texas at Austin Shows

Dec. 13, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — In the busy world of a honey bee hive, worker bees need their rest in order to best communicate the location of food to their hive mates, research from The University of Texas at Austin shows.

"When deprived of sleep, humans typically experience a diminished ability to perform a variety of tasks, including communicating as clearly or as precisely," said Dr. Barrett Klein, a former ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student at the university. "We found that sleep-deprived honey bees also experienced communication problems. They advertised the direction to a food site less precisely to their fellow bees."

Insominator and Honey Bees
To deprive honey bees of sleep, Dr. Barrett Klein used a magnetic contraption called the "insominator" (on the left). Sleeping bees affixed with a small piece of metal were jostled awake when the insominator passed over them. Klein found that sleeplessness led to poor signaling by foraging bees about the location of food sources.

video icon Watch a YouTube video of a waggle dance performed by a sleep-deprived bee.Credit: Barrett Klein

For humans, imprecise communication can reduce efficiency, cost money, and in some cases, cost lives. For honey bees, Klein says it could affect their success in locating food, which could lead to a less competitive colony.

"While the importance of sleep has been studied in Drosophila flies for several years," said Dr. Ulrich Mueller, professor of biology and study coauthor, "Barrett's study is the first to address the function of sleep in a social insect in the context of its society, and the first to show that sleep deprivation impairs precision of communication in an insect.”

The research was published in PNAS Early Edition this week.

There are various ways to poke and prod humans to force them to stay awake prior to measuring the effects of sleep deprivation. But how to make bees in a hive lose sleep?

Klein invented a magnetic machine aptly named the "insominator," a contraption he passed over quietly resting bees during the night to deprive them of sleep. The bees, outfitted with small metallic backpacks, were jostled into activity by magnets in the insominator, and this was repeated over the course of normal sleep time.

Barrett then recorded the behaviors of the sleepless bees and discovered they weren’t able to communicate as well the direction of nectar-filled flower patches to their sisters through their usual waggle dance.

"The dance was not necessarily wrong, but it was less precise than dances performed by bees that were not sleep-deprived," says Klein. "We expect that a less precise dance would lead to fewer followers making it to the food source, and we hope to test this in the future."

Klein is a researcher at Universität Würzburg in Germany. His coauthors include Arno Klein from Columbia University, Margaret Wray and Thomas Seeley from Cornell University and Ulrich Mueller at The University of Texas at Austin.

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 512-232-0104; Dr. Barrett Klein, Skype: pupating, 49-016-368-17382

5 Comments to "Sleepless Honey Bees Miscommunicate, Too, Research at The University of Texas at Austin Shows"

1.  Michael P. Dobrasko said on Dec. 16, 2010

I'm assuming the "small metallic backpacks" alone, without being stimulated by the insominator, were evaluated as to their effect on the bees performance.

2.  Mark Bradley said on Dec. 20, 2010

Can bees experience sleeplessness in nature? Is this possibly a contributing factor to CCD?

3.  Lauren said on Dec. 22, 2010

nice study with meaningful repercussions

4.  Lee Clippard said on Jan. 6, 2011

Hi Mark. I asked Dr. Klein the very same question about CCD when I was writing this story about the research. I also asked if colonies being transported around the country to pollinate large crops could be effected by sleeplessness. Here was his response:

"Colony collapse disorder (CCD) appears to be a complicated problem and it is possible that sleep deprivation could exacerbate CCD, although this possibility has not been tested. Transporting honey bee colonies over long distances, a typical apicultural practice in the USA, poses untested risks for the health of the honey bees. Are they sleep-deprived and does this weaken their prospects for communicating or functioning optimally once at their destination? The stress experienced by jostled colonies in transit is probably fairly high and sleep deprivation may contribute to this stress."

5.  Ezra said on Jan. 12, 2011

If I were "outfitted with small metallic backpack," I would probably miscommunicate too.