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