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Bees are socially sensitive, says researcher Clare Rittschof, and she’s not referring to their pining away from rejection. Rather, honey bee social behavior includes an ability for a colony to band together in a sophisticated enough effort to fight off a hungry bear. Listen and learn

  • How honey bee characteristics are formed by neurogenomics, or experiences that regulate aggressive behavior in addition to genetic propensity,
  • How she’s found that aggressive behavior in honey bees is paired with better health traits for those same bees as well,
  • What roles different bees in the colony play, including guards that sniff entering bees, and how these behaviors may have developed, and
  • What aspects of bee anatomy determine behavior, from how a Queen is made to which colony members can produce males.

Clare Rittschof is an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky with an emphasis in behavioral ecology.

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She’s fascinated by how animal behavior evolves: why animals behave in certain ways; how those behaviors developed as a function of their brain interfacing with their environment and DNA; and how those behaviors continue to evolve. In other words, she studies the connection between behaviors and increased survivability and reproduction. But not just any animal: her early work focused on spider behavior and now she’s fully focused on honey bees.

She takes listeners inside the colony and even the abdomens of bees, describing how a Queen’s identify is determined by her developmental nutrition and what distinguishes her abdomen’s morphology from worker bees.

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But she also explains the behavior and the level of “learning” bees internalize and how scientists can study and understand their sophisticated behaviors.

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She describes “where learning or experience can modulate that ‘instinct.'” For example, they are able to modulate their level of defensiveness around a flower they’re feeding from as opposed to a nest. There’s a complicated and fascinating evolution of such behavior, and Clare Rittschof has made studying that her life’s work.

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