The Complex Societies Of Bees And Beyond

17:44 minutes

Step aside, honeybees, there’s a new pollinator in town. Hollis Woodard of University of California, Riverside shares the intricate life cycle of bumblebees, whose queens spend most of their life cycles solitary and underground, but then emerge in the spring to single-handedly forage for food, build a nest, and start colonies that eventually grow to number hundreds.

And UCLA’s Noa Pinter-Wollman studies the behavior of bees and other social insects, and why ant, bee, and spider societies are more than just an amalgam of individuals—but collective behaviors that emerge from the masses. Could there be a human connection?

[The marvelous, misunderstood lives of common spiders.]

The two insect aficionados share the mysteries of arthropod societies in this interview recorded live in Thousand Oaks, California. Take a look at Pinter-Wollman and Woodard’s social research subjects below.

a nest of tan furry spiders in thick webs with smaller baby spiders
Spider nest. Credit: Noa Pinter-Wollman
three ants are taking apart and carrying another insect
Ants. Credit: Noa Pinter-Wollman
Bumblebees. Credit: Christian Baker ©Science Friday

Related Links

  • Read a 2013 study on the social regulation of maternal traits in bumblebee queens and a June 2018 study on how insecticides affect bumblebee queens from Woodard’s lab.
  • Read Pinter-Wollman lab’s study on how exposure to predators reduces collective foraging aggressiveness and affects the colony published in Behavioral Ecological Sociobiology. 

Segment Guests

Hollis Woodard

Hollis Woodard is an assistant professor of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside in Riverside, California.

Noa Pinter-Wollman

Noa Pinter-Wollman is an associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you from the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, California.


Think about bees, and ants, and spiders. Tiny as they are, they’re all vital parts of our ecosystem, whether as food, or pollinators, or predators. And they have another thing in common, complex social behavior. Think about the term hive mind, right?

This idea that all the individuals in a group are working together to keep each other alive in this crazy world. But how well does that actually work out? What factors make a colony more or less successful? And can individual behavior still tilt the hand of fate for the whole group? Or are the hives indeed legion?

My next guest looked at these questions. Hollis Woodard is an associate professor at UC Riverside, studying the lives of bumblebees. And Noa Pinter-Wollman is an associate professor at UCLA, looking at the social behavior of bees, ants, and even spiders.


Dr. Woodard, you know, if you ask everybody, they’ll tell you that honey bees get all the attention, right? But you gravitated to bumblebees, why was that?

HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, I actually did my PhD in honey bee lab, but I went rogue and worked on bumblebees instead. I started my PhD in 2006, which is the year that the honey bee genome was sequenced. And when it was sequenced, we suddenly had this tool kit that we could use to answer all kinds of really cool molecular questions in honey bees. And so I sort of fell in love with bumblebees and wanted to develop something similar for them.

IRA FLATOW: And compared to honey bees, bumblebees have a very different life cycle, right? How did the colonies get started?

HOLLIS WOODARD: First, honey bees, they’re what we call perennially social. So they’re always social. There’s never a point in their lives, in the life of a honey bee queen, where she’s living on her own. But bumblebees are different. They have an annually social life cycle, where queens, in the late summer season, new queens will emerge in the colony.

And these queens will leave the nest on their own, and they’ll go off and mate over winter, all completely on their own. And then in the spring, these queens have to crawl out of their over-wintering spots and start their own nests. So they’re spending most of their life living on their own.

And so even though they’re social insects, and they have queens, and workers, and this sort of complex social behavior, they’re also in a sense living like solitary insects for part of their life cycle too.

IRA FLATOW: And you brought a nest to show us what they look like.

HOLLIS WOODARD: I did, yeah. So you’ll notice from the get-go that it looks a lot different than a honey bee nest. It’s really interesting because, to the best of our knowledge, honey bees and bumblebees, they actually share a common origin of sociality. So we think that the ancestor to both of these bee groups, they shared an ancestor about 100 million years ago. And we think that that ancestor was social. But since that time, a lot can happen in 100 million years. And so they’ve evolved these differences. And today they look really different, the way they nest, the way that they live.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Pinter-Wollman, meanwhile honey bees are extremely social all the time, right?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: Yes, they are.

IRA FLATOW: And we tend to confuse the two kinds of bees as having equal lifestyles all the time. We really– well, it’s a bee, it’s a bee, right?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: Well, I consider honey bees as ants with wings. My lab actually studies ants. We do a little bit of work on honey bees, but mostly focus on the ants. And so some of our work on honey bees is looking at how they forage, and how different individuals in a colony contribute to foraging behavior for the colony as a whole.

IRA FLATOW: You brought some ants with you, a jar of ants.

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: They’re harvester ants from here in California.

IRA FLATOW: That looks like stuff I see on the sidewalk.

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: They’re slightly larger than what you’d see on–

IRA FLATOW: They are a little bit. And they look longer.

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: They’re a bit– yeah, and they’re less squishy than the ones you’d see on a sidewalk.

IRA FLATOW: And why are you interested in them?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So these are– the true harvester ant, [INAUDIBLE], and the nice thing about this particular species is that they tend to move between nest sites. So a colony of up to 10,000 individuals will just one day decide to pick up and move from one nest site to another. And it turns out that the structure of the nest, it determines how quickly they forage and how quickly they call their friends to food. So another thing I brought here is a cast of a nest. You flip it over, it’s on its head.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, so it hangs, just like that. That’s a cast of an ants’ nest.


IRA FLATOW: Is that like pouring plaster of Paris?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: Mm hmm, that’s exactly plaster of Paris from Home Depot.

IRA FLATOW: How far does that go down? Is this the whole length?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: No, that’s just the top part.

IRA FLATOW: It’s about six, eight inches long, it looks. I’m just describing it for our audience, but it could go much deeper than that.

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: Yeah, so you can pour down other materials. We did one cast with zinc, which is a type of metal, that when you heat it up, it’s like water. And so it flows down much deeper. And then when it hardens, it’s easier to dig around in and it won’t break like the plaster. And so we can see that it goes much, much deeper, probably a few feet down. It depends on the environment too. So in the environment where I study these, there’s a lot of rocks. So that determines how deep they can go.

IRA FLATOW: Hollis, there’s so much focus on queen bumblebees, what about the drones and the workers? Can they make a difference in whether a colony succeeds?

HOLLIS WOODARD: Not the drones. So the drones don’t do too much for the colony itself. They don’t do much work. But the workers are definitely important too. We’re focusing mostly on queens in my lab because they have this part of their life that they’re living on their own. And we’ve done a few studies now that show that queens are actually very sensitive during that stage. So it’s an important point to study.

IRA FLATOW: Something that, when I was reading about this, that was really amazing is that when we talk about honey bees, we know that to make a queen, they’re fed something called royal jelly. But that’s not what the bumblebees do. How do you make a queen?

HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, for the most part, we don’t know. What we do know is that it looks– we know what happens during larval development. So just like in honey bees, there’s some point during really early larval development where a female larva, she can start becoming a queen or a worker.

And if you think about the implications for that, what will happen to her and what she might do in her life is completely different, depending on this one or the other trajectory. And we know it has something to do with food in bumblebees.

We know that it’s something that they’re either getting more food or they’re getting more food at a very specific point. But we think that there are probably also factors in the regurgitation, just like there are in honey bees, in bumblebees, and people just haven’t looked for them yet.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, interesting. We’ve got lots of questions from the audience. Let’s start right over there, on the right side. Yes, go ahead please.

AUDIENCE: Hi. My mom is allergic to bees. I was wondering if there was any way that you could extract the DNA from the bees and use it to help her heal her when she gets stung?

HOLLIS WOODARD: That is a great question. I’m allergic to bees too.

IRA FLATOW: Can I back that up for a second? You work with bees and you’re allergic to them.

HOLLIS WOODARD: So I’m allergic to honey bees.


HOLLIS WOODARD: But not bumblebees. That’s a really great question. So the things that are in the venom that cause the terrible reaction that your mom would get if she were stung by a bee, and me too, a lot of those components are encoded by the genome of the bees. And so if we sequence it, and we learn more about what those factors are, and how they trigger an immune response, I bet there are researchers working on that to try to figure out how we can understand how the two things– the immune system in the human and the venom in the bee interact.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Great question.

HOLLIS WOODARD: Yeah, great question.

IRA FLATOW: Noa, ants also live in big groups with a queen. How are their lives different from something like a honey bee?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: Well, there’s a lot of species of ants. So there’s different types of sociality. And there’s some similarities and some differences. First of all, many of them live underground, whereas bees will put their hives inside of tree cavities. And so that’s one difference, for example. There are interesting similarities.

For example, both honey bees and some species of ants will relocate from one nest site to another. So honey bees will go and look for a new nest site and kind of the shape of the entrance of the cavity that they find, and the size of the cavity, will determine whether or not they’re going to go there.

And certain other ants, there’s species of rock ants that will look for certain crevices that again have small entrances and are dark places. So there are some similarities and some differences. I think the size is one thing. There’s some species that have ant colonies that are only up to 50 or 100. And then there’s some that are thousands, tens of thousands, and even up to millions. A leaf cutter colony can be up to a million individuals.

IRA FLATOW: And just in time for Halloween, I know that you also study social spiders. What are social spiders?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So of the about more than 40,000 species of spiders, only about 40 species or so are social. And what happens is they live in groups. And the reason we think they live in these groups is so that they can capture prey that’s larger than them. And so they cooperatively build these kind of retreat structures where they live. And they raise their offspring together. So what you see behind me are a bunch of spider moms.

Actually, each one is probably the size of a centimeter or a centimeter half, so half an inch or so, which is taken with a macro lens. And the small individuals are their babies that hatched from their eggs sacks. And so they take care of all these babies together. What they’re standing on is basically a little nest that they built. And then they build another web that’s what we call a capture web.

And so that can go basically on the whole Acacia tree. And that’s where they’ll capture the food. And so usually, large things get caught in these. And so you’ll see a bunch of spiders all come out from their retreat, and each individual will take a different piece of the insect that they’re capturing and start injecting venom. And then they’ll all come in just eat it together.


IRA FLATOW: You know, we don’t see these– do we? Are these around us, but we just don’t see them?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So, there’s some in the southeast of the US. This particular species is from southern Africa, so from South Africa and Namibia. There are species in South America, but none that I know of around California.

IRA FLATOW: You know, it’s hard to imagine individual spiders or insects having personalities. But you’re finding that some of them have individual personality– like how?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So a big part of what my lab does is look at personality of insects and arthropods, so like spiders. So we find that spiders vary in how they behave. And what we do, is basically we put them in a little box, just like this one. And we puff air on them with one of these nose cleaning bulbs, that if you had a baby, you would know what that is.

Basically, you puff two little puffs of air on them. And they’ll huddle and stop moving for a little bit. And we’ll just measure how long it takes them to recover from this. And so the ones that recover very quickly, we consider as bold individuals. The ones that take a long time, up to 10 minutes, we consider shy. And it turns out that if you look in the colony, most individuals are shy. But there is a few individuals that are very bold.

And so it turns out that these bold individuals have a disproportionate influence on what the group does as a whole. So we can take a group of shy individuals and we can test how quickly they attack prey. And attacking prey, the way we measure it, is basically we put a little piece of paper in their capture web and we vibrate it.

And so they think it’s an insect that got caught in it. And so they’ll start coming to it. And we count how many spiders come out to it and how quickly they do this. And so a group of all shy will take a long time. They won’t send as many individuals. But as soon as you put just one bold individual in the group, all of the sudden, they’ll be much more responsive to this prey.

IRA FLATOW: Is there such a thing as an alpha spider?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So we call them keystone individuals.

IRA FLATOW: There is, keystone.

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: That’s what we called them, because they have a disproportionate influence on the behavior of the group.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, let’s go over to a question over here, yes?

AUDIENCE: Back in the beginning, I heard you talking about feeding the larva anything you want in the future and seeing which qualities make a queen. What would you do if you hypothetically found which food made a queen?

HOLLIS WOODARD: I think what we want to do first is to really show in an experiment that something is triggering a larva to become a queen. You really need to do experiments where you can take it out and separate it from everything else and just feed it to a larva and show that it becomes a queen. So first of all, we want to be able to do that.

And then we imagine a possible scenario where we can create queens on our own in the lab. And one of the problems with bumblebees is that we really only intensively manage one species here in the US for pollination, but I told you we have 50 species. So it would be more sustainable potentially if we weren’t moving the same species of bumblebee all over the US for pollination.

So it would be great if we could rear new species. But one of the limitations to that is it’s hard for some species that you rear in the lab to make queens. And so if we know how it works and we could control it, maybe we could develop new species for pollination that are local, so we’re not shipping them around and things like that.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Is it true that you want to build a barfing robot?


IRA FLATOW: What does that mean, a barfing robot?

HOLLIS WOODARD: So bumblebees, you know, I think it’s so incredible that they feed one another. And the behavior is really interesting. It’s very sort of intimate and social. But if we want to study what it is in the food that influences development, we need a system developed where a bee isn’t delivering the food. We need to be able to deliver the food.

And so the robot that we’re trying to develop is something that would actually– it would almost have like a little arm. And it could move around. And it could dispense little bits of food to larvae, to rear them outside of the nest in vitro. If we had a system like that, we could do things like test with large sample sizes how toxic certain pesticides are, or how certain types of plant pollens impact the growth and health of bumblebee larvae. So there are a lot of questions we can’t answer right now, because we don’t have a nice, sort of standardized delivery system.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting point. And just to wrap up thought, what’s the practical use of understanding insect behavior? Will it help us understand something– what– better?

NOA PINTER-WOLLMAN: So one of the lines of research that my lab has been pursuing recently is looking how the architecture of the nest influences the way that the ants behave collectively. And so one of the things we find is that the way that the chambers are organized and the tunnels are organized actually influences how they forage and their forging behavior.

And recently, I collaborated with some architects and social scientists who are also interested in these ideas of how the built environment influences teamwork and how humans work together. And so it’s interesting, even though as we said earlier, humans and ants have very different perceptions of the world, ants, they live in these dark environments and don’t see much, and humans are very attuned to light, there are some similarities that we can draw between those.

And an ant system is a system where you can manipulate things and adjust, and you can move ants from one structure to another, which is more difficult to do with people. And so, potentially, by using this more simple system, you can learn things about maybe how to design robots to work together, and how to design spaces for people to build better teamwork, and so on.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’ll stay tuned, see what happens. Hollis Woodard is an associate professor at UC Riverside. And Noa Pinter-Wollman is an associate professor at UCLA. Thank you. Thank you both for joining us today. And we have video of Hollis’ bumblebee research on our website at sciencefriday.com/bumblebees.

After the break, we spend a third of our lives sleeping. Well, we hope we do, because lose out on precious Zs and it’s bad news for your health. But how much of that do your genes decide? Taking us to the break, our musical guest for the evening, Money Mark.


(SINGING) You think no one understands a word you say. But I do, you’re a beautiful black butterfly, black butterfly, black butterfly. Without you, there are no other colors. It’s true, yes, it’s true, my black butterfly, black butterfly, black butterfly.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.


(SINGING) You go where the wind blows. Then you return to me.

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