How Do Honey Bees Survive the Winter?

Jody Morris, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Jody Morris, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As hard as bees toil during their peak seasons—pollinating and generally making sure humanity doesn’t come crashing down in a Biblical-level disaster—you’d think the colder months would bring some kind of hibernation or rest, even if it means snowy death.

For bumblebees, that’s generally true. Unable to tolerate lower temperatures, mass bee graves in northern regions are not an uncommon sight, with only the queen retiring to a warm crevice. But for the honey bee, winter is a time to buckle down and labor even harder in an all-out effort to extend their life span.

Their secret: fly without actually moving.

A single honey bee will typically die of exposure once temperatures plummet to 28 degrees. In order to survive, a colony will need to (literally) huddle together to create a communal furnace fueled by their body heat. That’s generated by the bees contracting muscles in the thorax responsible for flight. The wings remain still, but the energy created can raise a bee’s core temperature.  

Having morphed into tiny space heaters, the bees arrange themselves into a cluster not unlike a football huddle, their little bee heads touching and their abdomens (which are cooler) facing out. The outermost layer flirts with a cooler temperature of 46 degrees, chilly but survivable. They comprise the shell, or “mantle,” that protects the queen. In the core, insulated by layers of bees, the temperature can get up to a downright toasty 95 degrees.

Bees also react to environmental changes. If things cool down further, they can contract and raise the temperature; warmer ambient weather allows them to relax and spread out a little. The mantle isn’t always stuck with the worst job, either. They can regularly burrow their way into the core to enjoy the bee equivalent of a cozy fireplace.

Typically, the bigger the cluster, the less each individual bee will have to work in order to maintain their thermostat setting, and the better the chance is for overall survival. But a huddle of any size requires energy, and their stockpile of honey might be just far enough away in the hive that breaking off from the group could mean death. The cluster will usually move in unison to reach untapped honey stores.     

Despite the ability of the honey bee to adapt to frigid temperatures, in modern times their survival often requires beekeeper intervention. Bees in particularly cold regions benefit from a layer of fiberglass insulation around the colony. Beekeepers also keep honey stores stocked to ensure the bees will have enough fuel.

Why Are Sloths So Slow?

Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
Geoview/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to physical activity, few animals have as maligned a reputation as the sloth. The six sloth species, which call Brazil and Panama home, move with no urgency, having seemingly adapted to an existence that allows for a life lived in slow motion. But what makes sloths so sedate? And what horrible, poop-related price must they pay in order to maintain life in the slow lane?

According to HowStuffWorks, the sloth’s limited movements are primarily the result of their diet. Residing mainly in the canopy vines of Central and South American forests, sloths dine out on leaves, fruits, and buds. With virtually no fat or protein, sloths conserve energy by taking a leisurely approach to life. On average, a sloth will climb or travel roughly 125 feet per day. On land, it takes them roughly one minute to move just one foot.

A sloth’s digestive system matches their locomotion. After munching leaves using their lips—they have no incisors—it can take up to a month for their meals to be fully digested. And a sloth's metabolic rate is 40 to 45 percent slower than most mammals' to help compensate for their low caloric intake. With so little fuel to burn, a sloth makes the most of it.

Deliberate movement shouldn’t be confused for weakness, however. Sloths can hang from branches for hours, showing off some impressive stamina. And because they spend most of their time high up in trees, they have no need for rapid movement to evade predators.

There is, however, one major downside to the sloth's leisurely lifestyle. Owing to their meager diet, they typically only have to poop once per week. Like going in a public bathroom, this can be a stressful event, as it means going to the ground and risking detection by predators—which puts their lives on the line. Worse, that slow bowel motility means they’re trying to push out nearly one-third of their body weight in feces at a time. It's something to consider the next time you feel envious of their chill lifestyle.

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Are Any of the Scientific Instruments Left on the Moon By the Apollo Astronauts Still Functional?

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

The retroreflectors left as part of the Apollo Lunar Ranging Experiment are still fully functional, though their reflective efficiency has diminished over the years.

This deterioration is actually now delivering valuable data. The deterioration has multiple causes including micrometeorite impacts and dust deposition on the reflector surface, and chemical degradation of the mirror surface on the underside—among other things.

As technology has advanced, ground station sensitivity has been repeatedly upgraded faster than the reflectors have deteriorated. As a result, measurements have gotten better, not worse, and measurements of the degradation itself have, among other things, lent support to the idea that static electric charge gives the moon an ephemeral periodic near-surface pseudo-atmosphere of electrically levitating dust.

No other Apollo experiments on the moon remain functional. All the missions except the first included experiment packages powered by radiothermoelectric generators (RTGs), which operated until they were ordered to shut down on September 30, 1977. This was done to save money, but also because by then the RTGs could no longer power the transmitters or any instruments, and the control room used to maintain contact was needed for other purposes.

Because of fears that some problem might force Apollo 11 to abort back to orbit soon after landing, Apollo 11 deployed a simplified experiment package including a solar-powered seismometer which failed after 21 days.

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