13 Fascinating Facts About Bees

iStock.com/florintt
iStock.com/florintt

Sure, you know that bees pollinate our crops and give us honey. But there's so much more to these buzzing insects than that.

1. Bee stings have some benefits.

A toxin in bee venom called melittin may prevent HIV. Melittin can kill HIV by poking holes into the virus's protective envelope. (Meanwhile, when melittin hitches a ride on certain nanoparticles, it will just bounce off normal cells and leave them unharmed.) Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis hope the toxin can be used in preventative gels.

Bee stings may also ease pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that molecules in bee venom increase your body's level of glucocorticoid, an anti-inflammatory hormone.

2. Bees work harder than you do.

During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death.

3. When bees change jobs, they change their brain chemistry.

bees flying to a hive
iStock/bo1982

Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure. Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.

4. Their brains defy time.

When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn't just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like a younger person's.) Scientists at Arizona State University believe the discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia.

5. Bees are changing medicine.

To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It's basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Research shows that propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema.

6. Bees can recognize human faces.

Honeybees make out faces the same way we do. They take parts—like eyebrows, lips, and ears—and cobble them together to make out the whole face. It’s called "configural processing," and it might help computer scientists improve face recognition technology, The New York Times reports.

7. Bees have personalities

Even in beehives, there are workers and shirkers. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that not all bees are interchangeable drones. Some bees are thrill-seekers. Others are a bit more timid. A 2011 study even found that agitated honeybees can be pessimistic, showing that, to some extent, bees might have feelings.

8. They get buzzed from caffeine and cocaine.

bumblebee on a flower
iStock/Whiteway

Nature didn't intend for caffeine to be relegated to your morning pot of coffee. It's actually a plant defense chemical that shoos harmful insects away and lures pollinators in. Scientists at Newcastle University found that nectar laced with caffeine helps bees remember where the flower is, increasing the chances of a return visit.

While caffeine makes bees work better, cocaine turns them into big fat liars. Bees "dance" to communicate—a way of giving fellow bees directions to good food. But high honeybees exaggerate their moves and overemphasize the food's quality. They even exhibit withdrawal symptoms, helping scientists understand the nuances of addiction.

9. Bees have Viking-like navigation techniques.

Bees use the Sun as a compass. But when it's cloudy, there's a backup—they navigate by polarized light, using special photoreceptors to find the Sun's place in the sky. The Vikings may have used a similar system: On sunny days, they navigated with sundials, but on cloudy days, sunstones—chunks of calcite that act like a Polaroid filter—helped them stay on course.

10. Bees can solve hairy mathematical problems.

Pretend it's the weekend, and it's time to do errands. You have to visit six stores and they're all at six separate locations. What's the shortest distance you can travel while visiting all six? Mathematicians call this the "traveling salesman problem," and it can even stump some computers. But for bumblebees, it's a snap. Researchers at Royal Holloway University in London found that bumblebees fly the shortest route possible between flowers. So far, they're the only animals known to solve the problem.

11. Bees are nature's most economical builders.

In 36 BCE, Marcus Terentius Varro argued that honeycombs were the most practical structures around. Centuries later, Greek mathematician Pappus solidified the "honeycomb conjecture" by making the same claim. Almost 2000 years later, American mathematician Thomas Hales wrote a mathematical proof showing that, of all the possible structures, honeycombs use the least amount of wax. And not only are honeycombs the most efficient structures in nature—the walls meet at a precise 120-degree angle, a perfect hexagon.

12. Bees can help us catch serial killers.

Serial killers behave like bees. They commit their crimes close to home, but far enough away that the neighbors don't get suspicious. Similarly, bees collect pollen near their hive, but far enough that predators can't find the hive. To understand how this "buffer zone" works, scientists studied bee behavior and wrote up a few algorithms. Their findings improved computer models police use to find felons.

13. Bees are job creators.

beekeeper working with bees
iStock/Milan_Jovic

The average American consumes roughly 1.51 pounds of honey each year. On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybees pollinate up to 80 percent of the country's insect crops—meaning bees pollinate over $15 billion worth of crops each year.

This article was updated and republished in 2019.

11 Amazing Facts About Alligators

Cindy Larson/iStock via Getty Images
Cindy Larson/iStock via Getty Images

Alligators are pretty terrifying as they are, but scientists are making discoveries about the reptilian ambush predators that only add to that reputation.

1. Alligators have an extremely powerful bite.

You really, really don’t want to be bitten by an alligator. A 2004 study of wild and captive alligators found that large individuals bite down with 13,172 Newtons—or 2960 pounds—of force, one of the most powerful bites ever recorded for a living animal [PDF].

2. Alligators can consume almost a quarter of their body weight in one meal.

Alligators don’t have a problem with their eyes being bigger than their stomachs. Thanks to a special blood vessel—the second aorta—they’re able to shunt blood away from their lungs and towards their stomachs, stimulating the production of strong stomach acids to break down their meals faster. Juvenile alligators are capable of eating about 23 percent of their body weight in a sitting, which is equivalent to a 180-pound person eating more than 41 pounds of steak au poivre at a meal.

3. Alligators eat their young.

One of the biggest threats to an American alligator? Other alligators. When alligators are born they’re small enough to be light snacks for their older neighbors, and a 2011 study estimated that, in one Florida lake, bigger alligators ate 6 to 7 percent of the juvenile population every year.

4. An alligator's stomach can dissolve bones.

Alligator resting on a log in a swamp
cbeverly/iStock via Getty Images

An alligator stomach is a hostile environment. Their stomach acids have a pH of less than 2—in the range of lemon juice and vinegar—and most soft-bodied prey is totally digested in two to three days. If you wound up in a gator stomach, however, you'd stick around a bit longer. Bone and other hard parts can take 13 to 100 days to disappear completely.

5. Alligators have antibiotic blood.

Alligators are tough—and not just because of the bony armor in their skins. Serum in American alligator blood is incredibly effective at combating bacteria and viruses, meaning that even alligators that lose limbs in mucky swamps often avoid infection.

6. Prehistoric ancestors of today's alligators lived 70 million years ago.

Alligator forerunners and relatives have been around for a very long time. The largest was Deinosuchus, a 40-foot alligatoroid that lurked in coastal habitats all over North America around 70 million years ago. Damaged bones suggest that unwary dinosaurs were a regular part of the “terrible crocodile's” diet. Fortunately, modern American alligators don’t come anywhere close to measuring up.

7. Alligator pairs often stick together.

A decade-long genetic study of Louisiana alligators found that some females paired with the same males multiple times, with one in particular choosing the same mate in 1997, 2002, and 2005. Even some females that mated with multiple partners still showed long-term fidelity to particular males.

8. Alligators love fruit.

Baby alligator riding on an adult's back
BlueBarronPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Alligators aren’t strict carnivores. They also eat fruit when they get the chance, and might be important seed-dispersers. That might not sound so scary at first, but just watch this video of an alligator mashing a watermelon.

9. Despite their short legs, alligators can climb trees.

While on the lookout for alligators, you should remember to occasionally look up. American alligators, as well as several other species of crocodilian, are surprisingly accomplished climbers [PDF]. As long as there’s enough of an incline for them to haul themselves up, gators can climb trees to get to a better basking spot, or get the drop on you, as the case may be.

10. Alligators use tools to lure their prey.

Alligators might be reptilian innovators. Scientists have observed Indian and American species of alligator luring waterbirds by placing sticks and twigs across their snouts while they remain submerged. When the birds go to pick up the twigs for nesting material, the gators chomp. 

11. Alligators have no vocal cords, but they still make sounds.

Alligators are among the most vocal reptiles, despite not having vocal cords. By sucking in and then expelling air from their lungs, they can make different sounds to defend their territory, call to mates or their young, or fight off competitors—such as a guttural hiss or a frankly terrifying bellow.

It’s Raining Iguanas In South Florida

passion4nature, iStock via Getty Images
passion4nature, iStock via Getty Images

Florida is known for its extreme weather, but a recent alert issued in Miami on Tuesday, January 21 was strange even for locals. As CNN reports, the National Weather Service's South Florida bureau warned of iguanas falling from the trees as temperatures approached freezing.

Thermometers rarely read below 50°F in South Florida, but this week temperatures dropped into the 40s and 30s. At higher latitudes, a chilly forecast means you should probably wear a coat, but in tropical regions, you may need to grab an umbrella as well to protect yourself from iguana showers.

The invasive reptile species is cold-blooded, which means its body temperature is dependent on its environment rather than self-regulated. Many iguanas never have to deal with cold snaps, but when temperatures do plummet, they have an adaptation that helps them survive. If it's colder than 50°F, the lizards become lethargic, and if it drops below 45°F, they enter a catatonic state. Their lungs still work, their heart still beats, but nonessential body functions shut down in order to conserve energy. The video below shows iguanas in this state during a cold Florida winter two years ago.

Those dodging falling iguanas can take comfort in the fact that the creatures aren't necessarily dead, even if they appear to be. But the clever survival trick only works for so long. After enduring near-freezing temperatures for eight hours or longer, dormant iguanas start to die. Fortunately for Miami residents of all species, temperatures there are expected to reach a high of 65°F later today.

[h/t CNN]

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