Honey Bees Create a Natural Glue From Spit and Flower Oil to Help Them Carry 'Pollen Pellets' Back to Their Hive

iStock.com/sasimoto
iStock.com/sasimoto

There’s a reason everyone wants to save the bees. They pollinate our crops, give us honey, and inspire medical research. Now, they’re helping scientists figure out how to make stronger adhesives—an endeavor that could improve everything from construction materials to the everyday glues we use.

As part of a new study, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology analyzed the methods by which honey bees get heavy bundles of pollen to stick to their hind legs. Two of these “pollen pellets” can weigh more than a quarter of a bee’s body mass, so it’s crucial that these packages remain properly secured while a worker bee flies back to its hive. “Pollen is a significant nutrient source for bees and their efficient collection and transport is essential for both the plant and animal’s survival,” the researchers wrote in their study, which was sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

To keep their precious cargo from being compromised in a storm or humid weather, the bees use a mixture of spit and flower oil to create an effective, water-resistant adhesive. By drinking nectar, they are able to excrete a sugary saliva that binds the pollen grains together. The plant-based oil, called pollenkitt, is also applied to keep the adhesive properties of the nectar intact while shielding the pollen from humidity.

“It works similarly to a layer of cooking oil covering a pool of syrup,” J. Carson Meredith, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering said in a statement. “The oil separates the syrup from the air and slows down drying considerably.”

This could have a number of practical applications. “Tapes, glues, adhesive sealants, and even caulks used in humid environments either in construction or in consumer products would perform better were they able to withstand changes to humidity,” Meredith tells Mental Floss.

It isn’t entirely unusual for scientists to study animals in hopes of yielding “bioinspired” products that mimic the natural processes they're based on. For example, in 2014 Stanford scientists created gecko-inspired adhesives that can help humans climb glass walls.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

Fat Bats Might Be Resistant to Deadly White-Nose Syndrome

Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Good news for flying mammals: chubby little brown bats might be genetically resistant to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s killed more than 5.5 million bats since it was first documented in 2006 [PDF]. A new study in the journal Scientific Reports describes three genetic adaptations in the bats that could protect them from the pathogen.

Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus), common in Canada and the eastern United States, are especially susceptible to white-nose syndrome. According to lead author Giorgia G. Auteri, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, white-nose syndrome kills bats by disrupting their hibernation cycles.

“When they’re in hibernation in the winter, they’re not meant to be waking up. They’re supposed to be asleep,” Auteri tells Mental Floss. “But this fungus grows on them, and it causes the bats to keep waking up during hibernation. And because they’re waking up when they shouldn’t be, they’re running out of fat reserves too early.”

But while white-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in North America, not all infected bats die from the disease—some recover. Auteri wanted to find out what made the survivors so special.

Auteri and her team compared the genetic makeup of nine surviving and 29 non-surviving little brown bats from northern Michigan. They discovered that survivors share three important genetic distinctions. “One is involved with fat metabolism,” she says. “And another is involved with regulating when the bats wake up from hibernation. And the third gene is involved in their echolocation ability, in their sonar for hunting insects.”

The results make sense, Auteri says. Because white-nose syndrome interrupts bats’ hibernation schedules, bats with genes that relate to more optimal fat storage (i.e., they’re fatter) and better hibernation regulation (i.e., they sleep longer) are more likely to survive the disease.

Auteri’s research could help scientists and conservationists find ways to preserve little brown bat populations. Besides being adorable, little brown bats also play an important ecological role as predators of insects like mosquitoes, moths, and other pests that are destructive to crops and forests.

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