How scientists accidentally found out that some bees can hibernate underwater

eastern bumblebee

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FACT: A lab accident helped scientists uncover bees’ surprising waterproof superpowers

By Rachel Feltman

Here’s the headline: apparently bees can survive underwater. Wild, right? But what’s even cooler is that this discovery started, as so many great scientific discoveries do, with an accident.

Scientists were working on a study on bumblebee diapause. Diapause is similar to hibernation. Diapausing bees get all quiet and chill, and don’t do any of their usual stuff like flying around, eating, or making more bees. It might sound like a nice long nap, but it’s actually tough for them to survive months without food in the cold.

For the common eastern bumblebee, at least (your mileage may vary with other bees) this process is also harrowing because it’s pretty much a solo endeavor. ​​These bumblebees produce unmated queens at the end of the summer. The queens then mate and store up a bunch of nutrients before digging down into little burrows in the soil and going into diapause for six to nine months. All the workers and males die when winter hits, but the diapausing queen emerges in spring to birth a new generation of drones and workers. She doesn’t just have to survive; she also has to come out swinging and ready to find a new place for a hive, start laying eggs, and feed and protect the new colony until workers are mature. 

So, yeah. This is a delicate operation. There have to be enough flowers around for the future queen to get all the nutrients she needs before going dormant, and she has to passively survive any environmental stressors that occur while she’s snoozing. Climate change obviously poses some new threats, given the increase in extreme weather events. 

Thanks to a big oopsie in the lab, we now know that one of the stressors those bees have evolved to survive is flooding. 

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada say an “experimental oversight” during a previous study on Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumble bee, led to “the inadvertent accumulation of water in containers housing diapausing bumblebee queens.” In non-academic-paper-speak, the researchers realized too late that condensation was building up in the tubes their little subjects were snoozing in. 

Once they drained the water (and probably swore a bunch) they were surprised to find that some of the soggy queens were alive. Naturally, they decided to put these surprising abilities to the test. 

They took 143 common eastern bumblebee queens and put them in soil-filled tubes, then put them in a refrigeration unit for a week to induce diapause. (A cold bee is a sleepy bee.) 

Then they separated the tubes of sleepy queens into groups: 17 were kept dry to serve as controls, and the other 126 had cold water added to them. Half of the drowned bees were left to float naturally on the top of the water, while the other half were pressed down gently with a plunger-like (!) apparatus. They were left in those conditions, plus the cold that would keep them in winter mode, for 8 hours, 24 hours, or 7 days. The scientists wanted to simulate different potential flooding scenarios—everything from heavy rain soaking the soil for a bit to a flood totally submerging the area. The plunger variable was there because in some situations, like high groundwater levels due to snow melt, the water might enter the burrow without filling it. Other situations, like a complete flood, would leave the bees totally submerged. 

Then the scientists popped the queens out of the water, transferred them to normal soil tubes, and kept them in cold storage for another eight weeks, so all of them experienced an equitable diapause, other than flooding. 

Out of the 21 bees that took a week-long swim, 17 were still hanging on eight weeks later—that’s an 81% survival rate. And the bees that never got wet weren’t faring much better. Out of the 17 dry bees, 15 made it to eight weeks—that’s 88%.

For more on this surprising tale of survival, check out this week’s episode of The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. 

FACT: Somewhere in our solar system, something is spewing out water at a rate of 79 gallons per SECOND

By Moohoodles

Somewhere in our solar system, something is spewing out water at a rate of 79 gallons per SECOND. And no, I’m not talking about Earth. 

Enceladus is a moon of Saturn that spans about as wide as the state of Arizona. It’s super white and bright—it’s actually the most reflective surface in the solar system—because it’s covered in ice dust. You can probably guess where this is going: Enceladus is an extremely wet little moon, and it spits water out into space like it’s going out of style. 

The Cassini spacecraft started picking up interesting readings from Enceladus when it reached the Saturn system. When Cassini took a closer look, we learned that jets of icy water were continuously shooting out into space from the moon at a rate of 800 miles per hour. Recent observations from JWST showed that one water plume spans more than 6,000 miles—almost 20-times the width of the moon itself—and gushes out enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool in just a couple of hours. 

Ever since Cassini first dove through one of Enceladus’s plumes in 2015, scientists have been obsessed with the idea that the moon’s hidden oceans might harbor life. That’s because the water jet contained molecular hydrogen. Microbes thrive on that stuff. Recent research on Cassini data revealed that the geysers also contain phosphorus, which is another crucial element for creating life (and likely the rarest of the bunch). 

FACT: Hyraxes are the weirdest little elephant relatives who sit on rocks and sing

By Jess Boddy

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I have an obsession with a certain football-sized animal as of late. And that would be the hyrax. I just can’t get enough of their weird, toothy expressions and mischievous little grins. And they’re actually really peculiar animals. They somehow aren’t rodents, despite their forever-growing incisors, and are instead related to elephants and manatees. But perhaps my favorite thing about hyraxes is how they don’t fight for dominance—instead, they sing. Listen to this week’s episode to hear me wax poetic about these little guys, and to learn more about their strangely complex and human-like songs.

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