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American Bee Journal

How Stingless Bees Pass Along Their Culture

By July 8, 2024No Comments

My lab is proud of our culture. We’ve worked hard for many years to create a supportive environment that’s conducive to sharing of knowledge and skills. Because of this culture, new people to our lab quickly gain new knowledge and skills, our team makes progress, and we have a bit of fun along the way.
We humans like to think we’re special, in part because of our high cognitive skills and advanced forms of social learning, which are important for maintaining our traditions and cultures. But what about other animals, such as bees?
Can bees maintain their own culture? If so, how do they learn from each other, and how are their traditions maintained across generations? These are the topics for the seventy sixth Notes from the Lab, where I summarize “The inheritance of alternative nest architectural traditions in stingless bees,” published in the journal Current Biology [2024] and written by Viviana Di Pietro and colleagues at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and a few other institutions in Europe and Brazil.
For their study, Di Pietro and colleagues combined extensive observations of stingless bee nesting behavior with two elegant manipulative experiments. And if you love math, you’ll be happy to know they also threw in some mathematical modeling for good measure.
All of their work centered on understanding how colonies of the neotropical stingless bee, Scaptotrigona depilis (see Photos 1 & 2), maintain one of two distinct and visually striking brood comb patterns, either parallel or helicoidal arrangement (see Photo 3). In other words, the authors wanted to know how a colony’s unique comb-building tradition was maintained as part of its culture.
Over the course of two years, the authors observed the nest-building patterns of 413 colonies of S. depilis. They hypothesized that prevailing comb configuration (parallel or helicoidal) would guide construction by successive worker cohorts, so they created a simple mathematical model that could be used to test this hypothesis, then compared their observational data with the model to see if they were correct.
Next, the authors…

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