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"Wannabees" -- The Discovery Files

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Scientists at the University of Illinois tracked the movements of individual honey bees for several weeks and made two discoveries: Some foraging bees are busier than others; and if those busy bees disappear, others will take their place.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: Bees buzzing, hive) Worker or shirker?

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: more buzzing) 'Busy as a bee'--'a beehive of activity.' While we associate bees with hard work and getting it done, the truth is, some bees are a lot busier than others. A study at the University of Illinois delved deeper into this bee-havior.

The research focused on foraging honey bees the ones that gather the nectar and pollen to feed the hive. To track their progress, hundreds of bees were each individually fitted with radio frequency identification tags and monitored for several weeks. In these high-tech 'job evaluations,' the researchers found that just 20 percent of the group was responsible for bringing in more than half the nectar and pollen.

The team wondered what the effect would be if the elite group of overachievers was removed. If somehow they were born intrinsically different, would sending them on vacation affect the hive? In the study, the formerly less-productive bees stepped up. Within 24 hours there was a five-fold increase in the activity level of the remaining bees. (Sound effect: football crowd cheering) The second-string bees showed they could become star players.

It's not yet clear whether all bees can become high producers if needed, nor do we fully understand why some bees work so much harder at the same job.

Maybe they're shooting for employ-bee of the month.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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