It’s long been understood that different bees have a range of different jobs within the colony. We also know that bees fan their wings to move air around in the hive to regulate the temperature and cluster over the brood to keep it warm.
By carefully regulating the temperature of each pupae, they change the way it develops and the likelihood of the role it will fulfill when it emerges as an adult.
Now, bee researchers have learned special “heater bees” act like a “living radiator” to carefully control the brood temperatures to determine what role the mature bees will fill in the colony — and those empty cells aren’t a problem but a necessary part of how the heater bees function.
According to Dr Jurgen Tautz, head of the bee group at Würzburg University in Germany and author of The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism, “By carefully regulating the temperature of each pupae, they change the way it develops and the likelihood of the role it will fulfil when it emerges as an adult.”
Developing bees that are kept at 34°C in their sealed cells will grow up to be housekeeping bees, the ones who clean the hive and feed the brood. Just one degree higher in temperature, and the bees will grow up to be foragers, going out into the fields to find nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive. And it is the “heater bees” who fine-tune the temperature for the developing brood, and effectively decide what roles will be filled by each, making sure that enough bees will be available to fill each important job in the colony.
Now we know that these empty cells are important, then bee keepers can try to avoid selecting for queens that don’t leave these cells empty.
“By creeping into empty cells, one heater bee can transmit heat to 70 pupae around them. It is a central heating system for the colony,” Dr Tautz told the UK Telegraph, in a recent article, Honey bees secret world of heat revealed. “Now we know that these empty cells are important, then bee keepers can try to avoid selecting for queens that don’t leave these cells empty. It can help to ensure that colonies can regulate their temperature properly and have the right mix of individuals.”