Sweet Dreams, Honey

Do honeybees sleep? With their incredibly active work and social lives, honeybees are always on the go – whether they are taking care of baby bees, collecting pollen or just catching up with a couple (or couple hundred) nest-mates. With all that is going on in their lives, it makes sense that these busy bees need to catch their forty winks! Honeybees are amongst the first invertebrates to have their sleep behaviour studied in detail, which was described as “…immobile bees whose bodies and legs hang in the direction of gravity”. Not only do bees actually need to sleep, but it’s also been found in various studies that honeybees demonstrate caste dependent and social experience dependent patterns in their sleep. This means that sleep for our honeybee friends is affected by their age, job, and even their social life.

When honeybees get older their job changes, a phenomenon called “Age Polyethism”, which affects how much sleep each bee will get in their respective ‘careers’. Young worker bees, or “Callows” begin their adulthood as “Cleaners” – an around-the-clock job that forces these young bees to catch 30 second naps whenever they can. “Nurses” have to tend to the little baby bees so they aren’t catching much sleep as well. After 12 days, longer naps are finally attainable for the more mature “Food Storers” since they don’t have to deal with their energetic baby siblings. “Food Storers” also have the privilege of sleeping further away from the busy cluster so they experience 24 hour sleep-wake cycles. Finally, the lifetime promotion of being a “Forager” allows the bee to sleep away from all the hive activity in order to get a full night’s sleep. These older bees (and by old we mean 20 days old!) not only sleep away from the hustle and bustle of the hive for peace and quiet, but also to keep any parasites they may pick up from their food searching adventures away from their nest-mates (so considerate!). Looks like more experience in the work force gets you a far sweeter sleep deal!

As it turns out, honeybees are the new ‘social butterfly’. The social life in the hive is incredibly demanding for a bee since you constantly have to keep up with all the latest flower gossip with your thousands of friends. Studies have shown that the more social a bee is in the colony, the more they have to sleep compared to their less social siblings (hey, it’s hard to be the ‘it’ bee). One important aspect of their social lives is how good of a (waggle) dancer they are, a communication method which indicates the distance and direction of food sources. As we all know, it’s hard to get your dance on when you are sleep deprived. When a honeybee is sleep-deprived, she can still get the moves right for communicating distance, but her direction communication becomes impaired. This likely results in very inefficient foraging and a very unhappy audience (guess telling your audience to fly off in random directions isn’t their idea of a ‘good time’). Suffice it to say, it looks like bee-auty sleep is pretty important for the honeybees to keep up with the latest buzz and their dance moves.

While there was a lot of uncertainty about bee sleep patterns before (or even knowing whether they slept or not!), more and more studies are demonstrating the health and social benefits our social honeybee friends get by being ‘bed bugs’. Night-night, time to catch some bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Image: by David Farquhar (via Flickr)

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