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Lab Notes | Bees suffer from social isolation too

August 25, 2022

NoneIllustration by Jenny Burns / Allen Institute

It is no secret that social isolation has major developmental consequences on humans, but what about other social creatures like bumblebees? Neuroscientist Z Yan Wang investigated how social isolation impacted young bumblebees, and it looks like they grow up to be a little ‘socially awkward.’ Dr. Wang joins Lab Notes to talk about one of her favorite social insects.

 

 


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Yan Wang
In the typical lifespan or lifecycle of a bumblebee, the queen in the spring emerges out of the ground. She has just been undergone a process called diapause. She emerges from the ground as it gets warmer and she finds a nice safe place to establish her nest and oftentimes, those are abandoned rodent holes or piles of hay or, you know, other kinds of nooks. And the Queen then lays her first, her first couple brews so her first daughters. As the season progresses, that sort of capacity for life of the colony expands because the workers, or the Queen's offspring, are taking care of the Queen's young. And so there are more and more bees that are being born. And at the height of summer, you know, there are probably 100 150-ish individuals and a really successful bumblebee colony. 

Rachel Tompa
That's Yan Wang, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Washington, describing the mythical almost fairy tale like emergence of a queen bee birthing from the ground and building her nest during the spring.  

Rob Piercy
Impressive. I didn't know that was how bumble bee colonies formed, it almost sounds dare I say – regal. So Rachel, what else did Yan teach you about bumble bees? 

Rachel Tompa   
Well, you know, I wasn't actually the one to talk to her. It was our colleagues, Anna Marie Yanny and Leila Okahata, and they're here to tell us all about it.  

Rob Piercy   
Anna Marie Yanny is a research associate at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Most days, she researches cell types and human and monkey brains. But, when she has the time, she helps us work on projects like these. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Thanks for the introduction, Rob. Yes, I have loved working on science communication pieces with Rachel and I'm so excited to be on the podcast with Leila today.  

Rachel Tompa   
Leila Okahata is an editorial intern in the communications department at the Allen Institute. She writes science stories based on the Institute's research. She's a microbiology undergraduate at UCLA, looking to get into science writing as a career. 

Leila Okahata   
Yes, thank you, Rachel, for the introduction. I'm excited to be continuing my SciComm journey here. 

Rachel Tompa   
I'm Rachel Tompa

Rob Piercy   
I'm Rob Piercy. And this is Lab Notes

Rachel Tompa   
So, Anna Marie has been bugging me for a while about doing a podcast for us. She stumbled on this really interesting study by researcher Yan Wang and thought it would be great for our listeners. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Yes, Yan Wang is a Next Generation Leader (NGL) at the Allen Institute. The NGL program is this cool advisory program that Allen Institute scientists run for early career researchers in neuroscience. And while I was looking for a podcast idea to pitch to Rachel, I found Yan’s work and was excited to feature her both as a bumblebee researcher and as an early career leader in the field. In Yan’s recent study, she found that isolating young bumblebees has a big impact on their development of social skills. This made me curious about what bumblebees can teach us about humans, and I thought our listeners might be curious as well. 

Rachel Tompa   
And since Leila is an intern here just for the summer, she wanted to dabble in as many storytelling formats she could before going back to Los Angeles. 

Leila Okahata   
I've never done a podcast before. And it's so unlike what I'm used to doing. Of course, I've done oral presentations for classes, but a podcast is a whole other beast. So I thought it'd be a good experience. And as Anna Marie mentioned, Yan’s research is super cool, and sounds like a great topic to talk about. 

Rachel Tompa   
All right, so I'm excited to learn about bees, you guys. 

Leila Okahata   
As mentioned earlier, our guest today is Yan Wang. She's an incoming Assistant Professor in the departments of biology and psychology at the University of Washington here in Seattle. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
And she loves bumblebees, I mean, loves them. 

Yan Wang   
They are so cute. They're just so, they're so charming to watch. Just observing them move around naturally, even outside, you know, like on flowers is so mesmerizing. There's something that's so almost relatable or understandable about watching them. 

Leila Okahata   
Just like humans, bumblebees are social creatures. They live in communities, interact with each other and have their own jobs. But unlike us, they have not been widely studied. When Yan went to college, she studied biology and learn all about honeybees, ants and termites, but surprisingly not the common bumblebee. So, once it came into question what she wanted to study for her postdoc, the answer buzzed into her mind. 

Rachel Tompa   
So set the scene for me — what's the usual social environment for a bumblebee? 

Anna Marie Yanny   
So Yan explained to us that bumblebees usually live in groups of 100, or so, individuals, and they're called a colony. And as Yan said, it all starts with the queen. In the spring, a queen bee emerges from the ground and lays her first daughters. These are the first worker bees to help grow the colony. 

Leila Okahata   
And a fully grown colony will have one queen bee among many, many worker bees. These worker bees tend to take certain roles: Some are nurse bees who care for the young ones, and others are foragers who leave the nest and go collect nectar and pollen to bring back to the colony. 

Yan Wang   
Those are sort of the two dominant social phenotypes, and there are other smaller ones as well. So for example, there are guard bees, which are workers that will stay at the entrance of the nest and prevent non-nest-mates from entering. And then there are also a few others within the nest that kind of make sure this whole social order is flowing. 

Rachel Tompa   
Wow. So this is really just like a whole community. Hmm. So how does Yan study these bees? Outside in nature, or are there bees in her lab? 

Anna Marie Yanny   
In her lab at Princeton University. Yan told us that at the height of her experimenting her team at about 700 bumblebees — six colonies and 100 individuals in isolation. And they were all housed in this one room that was only five feet by eight feet. And, get this, within that small room, all the isolated bees were housed in what looked like a giant bookcase. 

Yan Wang   
And so that was exciting. Because I felt like, you know, when I was in there, I was like, ‘I am surrounded by all my bees, like this is amazing.’ I had all the…. you know, if you put your hand on top of the box that has all the bumblebees. So the bumblebees come in this plastic container, they build their colonies in there. And then the plastic container has a secondary cardboard box, you know, so they're, they're very, very safe, they don't escape. But if you just like put the palm of your hand, on top of that cardboard box, you can feel them buzzing. And that's really exciting and really, you know, almost intimate. It's like you can feel like the heartbeat of your scientific experiment just by being in the same room with them, which is not something that you have with all experiments and or study systems. And that was really special. 

Leila Okahata   
That was such a touching moment between humans and bees. We asked Yan she could draw any connections between these two social creatures. 

Yan Wang   
I think what excites me about the potential connections that can be made between humans and bumblebees is just, in general, how social we both are, you know. Bumblebees have to live in communities in order to survive. And humans are also social creatures. And I think we've seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, just how much social isolation can impact our behaviors or health, our mental health. And, you know, having strong communities, developing strong communities can aid in a lot of those, the negative side effects of, of living through a global pandemic. So, I think for me, it's the overall nature of living in a social environment. 

Leila Okahata   
It's no secret that, as humans, being isolated from our social environment during the pandemic wasn't great, but that seems to be especially true for kids. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
If the pandemic has taught us anything. It's that Zoom school doesn't cut it. And kids will do anything to connect again, regardless of how socially awkward they may have become over the span of quarantine. Turns out it's the same for bumblebee kids. 

Rachel Tompa 
Wait, really? 

Leila Okahata   
Okay, maybe not exactly the same. But Yan another team found that when young bumblebees are isolated from their colony, they do become a little socially awkward. It all starts in the first nine days of a young bee’s life. 

Yan Wang   
Those first nine days of life are really important because we see a lot of refinement in the nervous systems. It seems that the mature form of the adult brain doesn't emerge until day nine or 10. And during those nine days, since they primarily stay within the nest, what the environment really is – is the social environment. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
For context, bumblebees usually live from one month to a year. So it's like their childhood and teenage years are all crammed into their early days. Yan and her team isolated young bees from their social environment right before this critical developmental period. And during that time, the bees are cooped up alone with no social cues. 

Rachel Tompa   
So no Zoom school or anything like that for the bees? They just got no social interaction at all? 

Leila Okahata   
That's right. And after the nine days, Yan would take an isolate bee, place it in a petri dish with another isolated bee, and test their social skills. 

Yan Wang   
And these two individuals would spend way more time, you know, right next to each other, or facing each other, you know, head to head and even antennating on each other. And antennating is a behavior in bees that is really important for social communication because they use their antenna to identify each other and to kind of transfer or communicate chemically. So it's almost like a handshake, you know, or that type of greeting, in a way, but with an additional chemical access to it. And so we saw that these isolated bee spent a lot more time antennating on each other as though they were, you know, trying to figure out who, who the conspecific was, or gain a foothold on the social situation. So that was the main kind of surprise that we found in terms of behaviors is that these isolated bees actually became much more affiliative, and they spent way more time near each other, next to each other, way less time just moving around locomoting and way more time almost… “sniffing” each other, if you will. 

Rachel Tompa   
Sounds like my dog. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Sounds like me! Well, I don't know about sniffing. But I recently had COVID, and after 10 days of isolation, I could not wait to hug another human being. 

Leila Okahata   
This hypersocial behavior from the isolated bees was actually a surprise to Yan and her team because in other social animals, like rodents or primates, social isolation in early life leads to increased aggression later in life. 

Rachel Tompa   
Wait, so are bees being less aggressive a problem? 

Leila Okahata   
I have that question too. So I asked the Yan if these friendly behaviors, or affiliative behaviors as scientists would call it, are detrimental to the bee or just signs they grew up differently. 

Yan Wang   
It's true that they, they're engaging more in this behavior that we traditionally think of as an affiliate of behavior. But I think the subtlety here is that maybe it's not the right thing to do, you know, so if you're at a cocktail party, or if you're at a meeting, or a conference or something, if you meet your neighbor, you don’t shake their hand for like 15 minutes, right? Like you're not shaking their hand the entire time you're having a conversation with them, right? You shake their hand and kind of move on. 

Rachel Tompa   
Ah, so even though socially awkward bees might seem cute to us, it's really not great for them. 

Leila Okahata   
Right. This could cause problems for them with more socially aware bees. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
As a neuroscience researcher, I was really curious how social isolation impacted the bumblebee brain, like what does a socially isolated bee brain look like? And how does it compare to a normal bee brain? Yan said that she and her team expected the brain regions responsible for social behaviors to shrink in the isolated bees. 

Leila Okahata   
But what she actually saw was surprising. The brains of isolated bees weren't all that different from socialized bees, but they were really different from each other. In other words, brains varied from isolated bee to isolated bee. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Right. And she described this in terms of investment, like the brain will invest high or low energy into growing certain brain regions. 

Leila Okahata   
And for her experiment, she compared the isolated bees to bees who were either raised in small groups of four or in a full colony for those nine critical days of development. 

Yan Wang   
We didn't see huge changes between colony-reared bees, group-reared news or isolation-reared bees. Instead, what we saw was a huge variance in the isolation-reared bees. So in the colony-reared bees and the group-reared bees, their brains really resemble each other's brains in terms of investment in different brain areas and volumes. But for the isolated bees, it's almost as if some constraint had been removed. And so you see some animals that have, you know, really low investment in certain areas and other isolated animals have really high investment in those areas. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
To summarize, the isolated bee brains develop in a bizarre way. It seems like isolation destabilizes the regular developmental trajectory of the brain, causing it to say ‘Maybe we should invest more in this area. Or this area. I don't know.’ 

Leila Okahata   
What struck me about this finding was that group-reared bees and colony-reared bees are protected from a similar fate. Their brain region sizes don't vary so much from bee to bee, and it seems like the opportunity to socialize early in life is what is protecting them. 

Yan Wang   
So you can think about it as like rails or those safety bumpers when you go bowling that, they kind of ensure that, okay, even if you're really bad at bowling, like I am, it's going to go down, that it's going to go down your lane, right? It might not hit anything but it’s going to go down your lane. And without any social experience in early life, it’s as though those bumpers were completely lifted. And, and now maybe you, you are executing the act of moving a bowling ball from where you're standing down to the other end of the alley, but maybe you're throwing it all over the place, you know, so it goes to a different lane to the right or the left. And so it seems that the social environment has this like buffering effect on the development of the nervous system that kind of guides it to, to a certain stable point. And without social experience in early life, that's completely removed. And so we've seen this huge variance, huge variability in neuro-developmental-investment in all the major brain areas that we looked at in the isolated animals. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
I don't know about you, Leila, but I can think of a lot of times in my life when socialization taught me something important. Like when I was in fourth grade, and I learned that picking flowers on the soccer field, instead of watching the ball, wasn't going to help my teammates very much. 

Leila Okahata   
Don't worry, you're not alone. I would physically avoid the ball so I was just as or even more useless to my team! But along with brain sizes, Yan's team also looked at the transcriptomes of each group. The transcriptome shows which genes are switched on in the brain. And Yan noticed a lack of large differences between the transcriptomes of colony-reared bees and group-reared bees. It was only the isolated bees that had a difference in activated genes. So despite being only in contact with three other bees, group-reared bees developed similarly to colony-reared bees. 

Yan Wang   
What that suggested to us is that even if you receive a limited amount of social experience, such as the group-reared bees, that was enough to maintain, you know, keep your brain on that typical trajectory of development from both a neurodevelopment side as well as this transcriptomics side. And that's really exciting, especially when you think about how lower levels of social interactions are typical in any social animal, right? So even though we're social animals, it's not like every single day, we're communing with every single human in New York City, right? That's not true at all, right? And that's probably something that's similar to bumblebees. It's not like when you live in a colony, you interact with every single individual every single day, and you say, ‘Hi, how's it going?’ Right? So, so this, it was interesting to see, almost as a, you know, proof of principle that the small groups were sufficient to maintain the typical neural transcriptomic landscape. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
So even a little socialization is good. And I'm sure we can all relate that during quarantine, even the smallest of interactions were helpful. 

Yan Wang   
You know, I was doing this in, in the middle of the pandemic, you know, when we were on low occupancy and everything and everybody was experiencing an extremely different social environment than, than usual. And so I don't want to draw too many connections with, with human experiences, but I think you know, it shows that limited social experiences are sufficient to kind of protect your brain’s transcriptome from the changes that we saw in the isolated animals. 

Leila Okahata   
It is tempting to like the bumblebee experience to the human experience. We're both social creatures after all. But, of course, at the end of the day, we are completely different species. Yan mentioned she was hesitant to relate their experience to ours too much. 

Yan Wang   
I think my hesitancy comes from the fact that the human social experience is modulated by so much more than just behavior, right, or just the kind of drive to acquire food or reproduce or protect yourself from predators or the elements. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Leila, how do we even summarize how humans are different than bees? 

Leila Okahata   
Definitely too many differences to count. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Right? And I don't want to say that the human social experience isn't necessarily better than bees, but it is different. We go to school, we vote in elections and we fall in love. Plus, our brains are really different than bee brains, obviously. 

Leila Okahata   
Before learning about Yan’s work, I was deathly afraid of bees. Their buzzing would spook me, I was terrified of getting stung and if they landed near on me, I was done for. But as someone with a big fear of bees, this research was really eye-opening for me. It made me think, ‘Hmm, bees are actually really cute.’ And maybe I had the wrong perception of them all along. 

Yan Wang   
My hope and wish for listeners is that they kind of get that same internal like ‘squeee’ of how cute bumblebees are when they first encounter them. So I guess I wish they knew just how, how perfectly tuned to social living these animals are in every part of their biology. 

Anna Marie Yanny   
Bees are gentler critters than we may expect. Yan will be resuming her bee studies at the University of Washington this fall, and she will continue to share her fascination with these tiny creatures’ vast nervous system. I'm Anna Marie Yanny. 

Leila Okahata   
I'm Leila Okahata. For more lab notes episodes and science research news, visit our website alleninstitute.org.  

Anna Marie Yanny 
Thanks for listening. 


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