Friday, March 14, 2014

Why the U.S. Military Is Into Bee Brain Surgery


Bees might hold the secret to a new kind of nighttime navigation. 

A surgeon wielding a micro-scalpel cuts through the head capsule of her subject, the nocturnal sweat bee Megalopta genalis, in a lab at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.  The surgeon, a researcher working under Dr. Eric Warrant, of Lund University in Sweden, inserts a glass electrode thinner than a micrometer into the bee’s brain. She is trying to pierce something very small—a monopolar cell in a layer at the top of the brain called the lamina. Warrant believes these cells are responsible for a trick called neural summation, which helps the bees maximize the use of light photons to see in their dark habitat—the dense tangled undergrowth of the nighttime Panamanian rainforest. “It seems that these bees are able to do something that almost defies physics,” says Warrant, a functional zoologist who has been researching nocturnal vision in insects for more than two decades. “We believe the miracle of how the bees see so well at night is happening here in these lamina monopolar cells.”

M. genalis nest inside small sticks and forage for pollen in the hour right after sunset and the hour and a half before sunrise. Dr. William Wcislo, acting director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, theorizes that the bees feed during these dim hours because there is less competition for pollen and fewer predators. Humans would hardly see anything in the dark rainforest, but sweat bees forage with no problem, avoiding dangling lianas and drooping palms and returning home to a nest the width of a magic marker, with an opening just barely larger than their bodies.

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