What we don’t know

da vinci

Something Salty

Sometimes I am surprised by what we don’t know about bees. You would think we’d have it all figured out by now. I’m not talking about knowing when to wrap or unwrap hives; start grafting queen cells; split hives; or stack supers. These are largely weather-related and we can’t predict next week’s deep freeze or windy storm. Basic management remains in the realm of art, not science. With years of experience, the beekeeper usually becomes better and better at practicing the art of beekeeping and picking a good time to split, stack, or syrup the bees. Instead, I am talking about basic bee biology – I really thought we already knew bees taste salt with their toes. But that tidbit of knowledge has just now been added to the world’s encyclopedias.

Researchers at the University of Toulouse, writing in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, have studied the honey bees’ tarsal taste system “through a series of behavioral and electrophysiological” methods. The scientists (mostly from Toulouse, France, but including a team in China) looked at the way bees respond when they step into sweet, salty, or bitter stuff. For bees, the feet can sense salt very, very easily – much more readily than they can taste sweet flavours. There seems to be no ability to taste bitterness through the feet (Hence, they never ‘taste the bitterness of de feet’).

This is new information. According to lead author Maria Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, “these results provide the first integrative study on tarsal taste detection in the honey bee.” So, just like most other insects, bees have flavour buds in their mouth, antennae, and feet. Must be handy, stepping in gooey stuff and knowing whether it’s edible. The only tastes I get from my own toes are sort of like old moldy cheese.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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