I love bees. I always have. Aside from the fact that they can sting (and that it hurts like crazy) they’re incredibly cute little creatures. Insects don’t necessarily have a reputation for being cute but bees, well, even the haters must admit that fuzzy little yellow and black bodies with wiggly antennas are adorable. Bees are also fascinating social creatures. They have complex societies made up of workers, drones, and queens. When scouts find food they perform elaborate dances to communicate their discoveries. They build extraordinary fortresses of geometric exactitude and beauty. They predict the weather. They fight en-masse. And, when the time comes, they can scout out new locations for new colonies as a team. In order to successfully carry out all of the many roles in a colony, a bee must have a mechanism for storing memories. It turns out, just like in humans, sleep plays an important role in consolidating those memories.
Sleep researcher Randolf Menzel from the Freie Universtät Berlin in Germany has spent four decades studying the brains of sleeping bees. Human brains are too complicated to tease apart where memories are stored, how they’re stored, and what role sleep plays in the process. But bee brains with their relatively limited amount of neurons and circuits, are the perfect test subjects.
Menzel tasked his bees with learning a new route home after being displaced from a familiar path. This is a critical skill for a bee who may, for a variety of reasons, find himself separated from his hive. If a bee doesn’t find his way back he will most certainly die. Also, he won’t be able to provide his hive with pollen or to protect his hive from potential danger. In essence, he will be cut off from his family. For humans, this may be a fate worse than death.
Honey bees perch when they sleep:
First, Menzel challenged healthy, well-rested bees to navigate the new route. The bees performed well even on terrain they hadn’t traversed since they were newly hatched. They figured out the route on the first day and remembered it on subsequent days. Then Menzel tried a different tack. He gave the bees a day to learn the new route then, that night, shook them awake every five minutes. The next day they were confused and fewer than half of the sleep deprived bees found their way home. Sleep deprivation robbed them of the memories they formed on the first day, befuddling their tracking and navigational instincts to fatal effect. Other research has found that sleep deprivation may also affect bees’ ability to communicate.
Menzel hopes to identify exactly what in the bees’ brains is affected by a lack of sleep. If he figures that out, we may gain important insights into our own minds.