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Scientists taught individual bees to solve puzzles. Soon, whole colonies knew how




As It Happens5:58Scientists taught individual bees to solve puzzles. Soon, whole colonies knew how


Bumblebees are social learners who follow cultural trends, a new study suggests.


New research out of the U.K. shows that if you teach a bumblebee how to solve a puzzle in order to get a tasty treat, other bees in the colony will quickly learn that same skill through observation.

And when bees are shown multiple solutions to the same puzzle, a colony will — over time — develop a preference for one technique over another.

“The reason this was so, so amazing really was that it seems as though the bumblebees were capable of a form of culture,” lead author Alice Bridges told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

By culture, she means bees learn specific behaviours from each other, and different colonies adopt different sets of behaviours. This is not unlike how people from different backgrounds have culturally specific ways of, for example, preparing a certain dish.

“Not many people have really thought about culture in invertebrates, and certainly not in insects like bumblebees, who have basically brains the size of a pinhead,” said Bridges, a biologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.

The findings, which focused on the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), were published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Flowers are puzzles, too

According to the study, it was long believed that the “astonishing behavioural repertoires of social insects” are innate.

But in recent years, scientists have begun to understand that bumblebees have an incredible capacity for both individual and social learning.

In an effort to better understand how bees acquire skills from one another, Bridges developed a puzzle box made from a petri dish containing a drop of sugar solution for the bees to slurp up.

There are two ways to open the dish and get at the sugar: The bees can either rotate the lid clockwise by pushing a red tab, or they can rotate it counter-clockwise by pushing a blue tab.

In the study, the bees could open the petri fish puzzle by either pushing a blue tab or a red tab. (Submitted by Alice Bridges)

Bridges and her colleagues trained some of the bees individually on each method. Then they introduced these “demonstrator bees” into larger colonies, and gave those groups access to the petri puzzles.

In the colonies where the demonstrator bee had learned to push the red tab, that technique quickly spread to the whole group. A similar phenomenon occurred in the blue group.

“Each colony, depending on which demonstrator we’d added, was actually learning different behaviour, sort of like a local fashion trend,” Bridges said.

Portrait of a smiling young woman.
Alice Bridges is a senior lecturer in lecturer in biology and animal behaviour and Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, who did her PhD at Queen Mary University of London. (Submitted by Alice Bridges)

Behavioural ecologist Ralph Cartar, who was not involved in the study, says the findings mimic how bees behave in nature — especially when they’re trying to get nectar from a particularly complex flower.

“The bee is essentially doing this puzzle solving — you know, it’s landing on a flower that’s closed and pushing it open and then sticking his tongue in to get the reward,” said Cartar, a University of Calgary professor emeritus who has studied bees for decades.

And they figure this out by — you guessed it — observing each other.

In fact, he said, bees learn a lot by watching each other, like which flowers are a good source of nectar, and which ones contain deadly predators.

“All these things show that bees in the wild pay close attention to what … the others are doing. They’re not just acting in a vacuum,” he said.

There were, however, some elements of the study that took Cartar by surprise.

In a control experiment with no demonstrator bees, some of the bees solved the puzzles on their own — but they only did it once or twice, and the behaviour didn’t spread to the rest of the colony.

“Why the heck did that happen?” Carter said. “It’s a puzzling thing.”

What’s more, when the researchers introduced both blue and red demonstrator bees to the same colony, the bees still developed an overwhelming preference for one method over the other.

That’s odd, says Cartar, because bumblebees are generalists, meaning they experiment with lots of different kinds of flowers.

In the wild, that’s because they’re looking for the best bang for their buck — whereas in the experiment, blue and red yielded the same results. So It’s possible that given equal rewards, the bees just stuck to what they were used to.

But that’s just a theory, he said, and more research is needed to say for sure.

“It’s beautiful to see a study that gives you a puzzle,” Cartar said.

Bumblebee ‘civilizations’

Co-author Lars Chittka, a behavioural ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, says the findings demonstrate that bees are “far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for.”

“We tend to overlook the ‘alien civilizations’ formed by bees, ants and wasps on our planet, because they are small-bodied and their societies and architectural constructions seem governed by instinct at first glance,” Chittka said in a university press release.

In fact, Cartar says people have a long history of underestimating other species’ abilities.

“I think that’s partly because we think so much of ourselves, and so little of other things, that we’re always surprised what others can do,” he said.

“But, you know, when you think about it, we’re all set up to do well in the environments in which we evolved. And bees do bee things very well.”


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Scientists discover water inside tiny beads of glass on moon



Analysis of lunar soil samples shows spheres of glass hold water inside them, scientists have said.

Scientists say they have discovered water trapped inside tiny beads of glass scattered across the moon, suggesting a potential reservoir of this precious resource for future human activities on the lunar surface.

The moon was long believed to be dry, but over the last few decades, several missions have shown there is water both on the surface and trapped inside minerals.

Scientists said on Monday that an analysis of lunar soil samples retrieved in 2020 during China’s robotic Chang’e-5 mission showed that these spheres of glass – rock melted and cooled – bore within them water molecules formed through the action of the solar wind on the moon’s surface.


“The moon is constantly bombarded with impactors – for example micrometeoroids and large meteoroids – which produce impact glass beads during high-energy flash-heating events,” said planetary scientist Sen Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geology and Geophysics, a co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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The solar wind is a stream of charged particles, primarily protons and electrons, emanating outward from the corona, the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere, and permeating the solar system.

“Solar wind-derived water is produced by the reaction of solar hydrogen with oxygen present at the surface of the lunar glass beads,” Hu said, with these spheres then acting like a sponge for the water.

For future moon exploration, including potential long-term lunar bases staffed with astronauts, water is of vital importance not only as a drinking supply but as a fuel ingredient.

A screen shows footage of the spacecraft for the Chang’e-5 mission, during an event on China’s lunar exploration programme, at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing on January 18, 2021 [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

‘Heat the glass beads to free the water’

The moon lacks the bodies of liquid water that are a hallmark of Earth. But its surface is thought to harbour a fairly substantial amount of water, for example in ice patches residing in permanently shadowed locales and trapped in minerals.

“Water is the most sought-after commodity for enabling sustainable exploration of planetary surfaces. Knowing how water is produced, stored and replenished near the lunar surface would be very useful for future explorers to extract and utilise it for exploration purposes,” Hu said.

Researchers see promise in obtaining water from the glass beads, perhaps through a heating process to release vapour that would then turn into liquid through condensation.

“We can simply heat these glass beads to free the water stored in them,” said Hu.

The capsule returning the soil samples to Earth landed in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.

About 3.8 pounds (1.7 kg) of soil were collected in the Chang’e-5 mission, with 32 glass beads – tens to hundreds of micrometres wide – examined in the study from the small amount of soil made available for this research, Hu said.

The glass beads were found to hold a water content of up to about 2,000 parts per million by weight. Hu said he believes that such impact glass beads are a common part of lunar soils, found globally and spread evenly.


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Webb Space Telescope found no atmosphere at faraway Earth-sized world, study says



This image shows an artist’s conception of what the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f may look like, based on available data about its diameter, mass and distances from the host star.NASA/JPL-Caltech/The Associated Press

The Webb Space Telescope has found no evidence of an atmosphere at one of the seven rocky, Earth-sized planets orbiting another star.

Scientists said Monday that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the planets in this solar system, some of which are in the sweet spot for harbouring water and potentially life.

“This is not necessarily a bust” for the other planets, Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist Sara Seager, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an e-mail. “But we will have to wait and see.”

The Trappist solar system – a rarity with seven planets about the size of our own – has enticed astronomers ever since they spotted it just 40 light-years away. That’s close by cosmic standards; a light-year is about 9.6 trillion kilometres. Three of the seven planets are in their star’s habitable zone, making this star system even more alluring.


The NASA-led team reported little if any atmosphere exists at the innermost planet. Results were published Monday in the journal Nature.

The lack of an atmosphere would mean no water and no protection from cosmic rays, said lead researcher Thomas Greene of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

As for the other planets orbiting the small, feeble Trappist star, “I would have been more optimistic about the others” having atmospheres if this one had, Dr. Greene said in an e-mail.

If rocky planets orbiting ultracool red dwarf stars like this one “do turn out to be a bust, we will have to wait for Earths around sun-like stars, which could be a long wait,” said MIT’s Dr. Seager.

Because the Trappist system’s innermost planet is bombarded by solar radiation – four times as much as Earth gets from our sun – it’s possible that extra energy is why there’s no atmosphere, Dr. Greene noted. His team found temperatures there hitting 230 degrees Celsius on the side of the planet constantly facing its star.

By using Webb – the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space – the U.S. and French scientists were able to measure the change in brightness as the innermost planet moved behind its star and estimate how much infrared light was emitted from the planet.

The change in brightness was minuscule since the Trappist star is more than 1,000 times brighter than this planet, and so Webb’s detection of it “is itself a major milestone,” the European Space Agency said.

More observations are planned not only of this planet, but the others in the Trappist system. Looking at this particular planet in another wavelength could uncover an atmosphere much thinner than our own, although it seems unlikely it could survive, said Taylor Bell of the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, who was part of the study.

Further research could still uncover an atmosphere of sorts, even if it’s not exactly like what’s seen on Earth, said Michael Gillon of the University of Liege in Belgium, who was part of the team that discovered the first three Trappist planets in 2016. He did not take part in the latest study.

“With rocky exoplanets, we are in uncharted territory” since scientists’ understanding is based on the four rocky planets of our solar system, Dr. Gillon said in an e-mail.

Launched in late 2021 to an observation post 1.6 million kilometres away, Webb is considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting Earth for more than three decades.

In the past, Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope scoured the Trappist system for atmospheres, but without definitive results.

“It is just the beginning, and what we can learn with the inner planets is going to be different from what we can learn from the other ones,” MIT’s Julien de Wit, who was not involved in the study, said in an e-mail.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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Large asteroid to zoom between Earth and Moon




A large asteroid will safely zoom between Earth and the Moon on Saturday, a once-in-a-decade event that will be used as a training exercise for planetary defence efforts, according to the European Space Agency.

The asteroid, named 2023 DZ2, is estimated to be 40 to 70 metres (130 to 230 feet) wide, roughly the size of the Parthenon, and big enough to wipe out a large city if it hit our planet.

At 19:49 GMT on Saturday it will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, said Richard Moissl, the head of the ESA’s planetary defence office.


Though that is “very close”, there is nothing to worry about, he told AFP.

Small asteroids fly past every day, but one of this size coming so close to Earth only happens around once every 10 years, he added.

The asteroid will pass 175,000 kilometres (109,000 miles) from Earth at a speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,400 miles per hour). The moon is roughly 385,000 kilometres away.

An observatory in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, first spotted the asteroid on February 27.

Last week, the UN-endorsed International Asteroid Warning Network decided it would take advantage of the close look, carrying out a “rapid characterisation” of 2023 DZ2, Moissl said.

That means astronomers around the world will analyse the asteroid with a range of instruments such as spectrometers and radars.

The goal is to find out just how much we can learn about such an asteroid in only a week, Moissl said.

It will also serve as training for how the network “would react to a threat” possibly heading our way in the future, he added.

‘Scientifically interesting’ 

Moissl said preliminary data suggests 2023 DZ2 is “a scientifically interesting object”, indicating it could be a somewhat unusual type of asteroid. But he added that more data was needed to determine the asteroid’s composition.

The asteroid will again swing past Earth in 2026, but poses no threat of impact for at least the next 100 years — which is how far out its trajectory has been calculated.

Earlier this month a similarly sized asteroid, 2023 DW, was briefly given a one-in-432 chance of hitting Earth on Valentine’s Day 2046.

But further calculations ruled out any chance of an impact, which is what normally happens with newly discovered asteroids. Moissl said 2023 DW was now expected to miss Earth by some 4.3 million kilometres.

Even if such an asteroid was determined to be heading our way, Earth is no longer defenceless.

Last year, NASA’s DART spacecraft deliberately slammed into the pyramid-sized asteroid Dimorphos, significantly knocking it off course in the first such test of our planetary defences.


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