We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More
Planet Earth

Arctic Bumblebees Use Outhouses to Keep Nests Clean

Researchers suggests this bumblebee strategy may be an important way to limit infection in bee nests.

By Joshua Rapp LearnApr 29, 2024 1:00 PM
Arctic bumblebee
(Credit: yosmoes815/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

There’s nothing worse than a trip to the outhouse in cold weather. But for Arctic bumblebees, potty breaks outside their regular burrow cavities may help keep their living space relatively clean and orderly.

“A lot of social insects have this kind of behavior,” says Hailey Scofield, director of climate change mitigation at Kawerak, a nonprofit organization serving tribes in eastern Alaska.

In a study published recently in Ecosphere, Scofield and her colleague Leah Valdes, a Ph.D. student in entomology at Cornell University, reported that after keeping bees for a period under observation, they found that bees consistently pooped in one or two concentrated locations, or outhouses as the researchers called them.

Why Would Bees Use an Outhouse?

Valdes says this behavior is likely related to hygiene. Social species like Arctic bumblebees can be susceptible to disease and parasites as they live in close quarters with relatives. As a result, hygiene is important for survival, just as behavior like social distancing when disease enters a colony.

“It’s often called a social immunity trait,” Valdes says.

When excavating 10 frigid bumblebee nests, Scofield and Valdes found the cavities were accordingly quaint — about the size of a baseball. They were likely excavated by shrews, Scofield says. In contrast to the large nests of honeybees, the Arctic bumblebee colonies only had about 20 or less individuals.

They also found that they were surprisingly dry inside. Or mostly dry — the cavities had small side passages that were extremely wet — more so than even the surrounding moss. The wetness mostly came from bee waste, as far as the researchers could tell.

Read More: Bumble Bees Like To Play Just For Fun

Discovering Bee Life in Alaska

Scofield grew up wanting to learn more about the huge bumblebees found in western Alaska. But even for a bee afficionado, it was “notoriously difficult” to find wild bumblebee colonies in the field. She and Valdes walked transects to try to survey bumblebees around Nome — a remote village in western Alaska.

They would drive out on one of the three roads leaving town, then hike around in search of bumblebees in June and July in 2021 — about the time that queens are just still flying around looking for a good place to nest.

“We’re out there at the end of the known road system without any cell phone service,” Scofield says.

In the Arctic, frigid bumblebees typically live in underground cavities. Sometimes, they would discover colonies by spotting bees fly into the moss. Other times they would just get lucky.

“We would step on a clump of moss, and it would buzz at us,” Valdes says.

When they found nests, Valdes and Scofield would excavate some of them to get basic measurements. Other times they would just probe inside with their fingers.

“Getting stung more than 10 times a day was normal for me for many days,” Scofield says.

Once found, the researchers brought a few nests back to the lab and set them up in experimental enclosures.

Read More: Like Humans, Bumblebees Can Recognize Objects Through Touch

Why Does a Bumblebee Outhouse Matter?

The team collected 50 wild bees and conducted gut dissections. They found that 58 percent of these bees carried trypanosomes — a group of intestinal parasites that impacts bees.

It’s possible that this species uses outhouses to limit transmission of the parasite, though the researchers say that more research is needed to confirm if this strategy reduces the prevalence of trypanosomes.

In general, the discovery that frigid bumblebees use outhouses can improve researchers’ knowledge about Arctic species in general, of which little is known. Scofield would like to search for the nests of other species in the area, to see whether they also use outhouses.

“This is just one species that we found,” she says. “We’d be interested in seeing if we can locate other bumblebee nests in this area.”

Read More: 6 Ways You Can Help Save Bees and Other Pollinators

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.