With global honeybee populations plummeting at staggering rates, researchers are implementing conservation efforts left and right to decrease the rate of loss or stop it all together, especially with our own growing food demands depending on honeybees. One of the many causes believed linked to their declining populations and collapsing colonies (called colony collapse disorder or CCD) is a lack of adequate nutrition and starvation. In response to this, new research from Arizona State, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology, suggests that baby honeybees—or more specifically larva—that experience short-term starvation grow up to be more resistant to nutritional deprivation.
“Surprisingly, we found that short-term starvation in the larval stage makes adult honeybees more adaptive to adult starvation,” according to lead author and Arizona State research professor Ying Wang. As is well known, honeybees are vital for crop pollination in major agricultural operations and for keeping up global food supplies for 7.4 billion people. However, the populations within honeybee colonies are down to an estimated 2.5 million from the 5 million of 70 years ago (which only had to feed roughly 2.5 billion people worldwide)—hence the importance of increasing honeybees’ chances of better adapting to their environments.
The findings from Wang’s group’s studies suggest that “[honeybees] have an anticipated mechanism like solitary animals,” which contributes to baby honeybees being able to acquire traits of starvation resilience. This mechanism, also called a “predictive adaptive response,” points to a possible correlation between prenatal nutritional stress and adult metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes in humans. Wang’s studies are the first to show that social animals have this mechanism, revealing “key features of honeybee physiology that may help us find solutions to the serious problems of bee health worldwide.”
As the studies on baby honeybees have shown, those that experience starvation as larvae are able to reduce their metabolic rate, maintain blood sugar levels, and use other fuels faster compared to a control group. This find may seem small, but the fact that honeybees have this ability means there is a chance to increase their survival when or before food supplies become scarce. “Manipulations during development may be able to increase the bees’ resistance to different stressors, much like an immunization works,” according to Wang.
With so many causal factors affecting honeybees around the world, exploiting this adaptive trait for their benefit could protect the bees from hitting critical levels, which is very possible when so many of those causal factors are still not known or understood. The USDA has stated that one in every three bites of food on American plates was made due to pollination—not only do we have a dog in this fight via pollination and honey, but we also have a responsibility to the creatures we very possibly contributed to the downfall of.