Throughout evolution, animals have developed mechanisms to survive disease. In addition to the physiological response, the psychological response when encountering germs and disease helps us avoid them. Surprisingly, this response may help avoid the spread of disease to others. A new study found that bees apparently have behavioral changes that allow them to keep their colony safe from viral spreading — but to the detriment of neighboring colonies.
Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tracked hundreds of bees after they infected them with a virus called Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV). The study showed that bees practiced a form of social distancing when infected: they avoided other bees from their colony and came into contact with healthy bees less than those that were not infected. By just stimulating the immune response of the bees (without viral infection), the bees behaved the same way, meaning that it was probably the immune response of the bee’s body that was driving this social distancing behavior.
But menacingly, the viral infection manipulated the bees to spread the virus to bees in other colonies. Since bees have their own cliques, or colonies to be scientifically accurate, “bouncer bees” typically guard the bee colony. These guards make the decision of letting other bees in based on the surface chemicals they carry which act as social signals.
They saw that bees from other colonies accepted the infected bees with open arms where they usually would be rejected. In this case, it seemed that the virus produced a different chemical composition in infected bees that allows them to be accepted into other colonies.
This way, the virus can increase its transmission, which has implications for commercial beekeeping operations in which bee colonies are kept in close quarters. Beekeepers may have to implement social distancing measures to keep their bees safe and healthy.