Science News June 5th 2014: Bee Brains and Bacteria Brewing Biofuels

On June 5th I will be on First@Five with James Coleman talking about these news stories:

Bee Brains Build Cognitive Maps

Shout out to Moira, Rick and Jason.

What happens when bees get lost?

Imagine you were knocked out on the block to your house. When you woke up, say, on the other side of town, you wouldn’t naturally get up and travel in the same direction that you were going before, would you? Bees will do that by orienting according to the sun and the time they believe it to be. However, when they don’t find their hive after the appropriate travel time they do something that you do. They establish their location and the correct direction according to local landmarks and their remembered map of the territory. This is according to a new paper published in PNAS by Auckland University, Massey University (my colleague Dr. Mat Pawley), Rutgers and the Free University of Berlin scientists collaborating to look into the evidence for a “metric cognitive map” in the brains of insects.

Bee path  Similar flight speed and accuracy of bees with (red) and without (blue) clock-shifting. Credit: James F. Cheeseman
Read more at:

The work was done in an interesting way; bees were sedated, moved, woken up and tracked according to radar. What they did first, orienting according to the sun, really isn’t the surprise here. The remarkable thing, according to those who did the work, is the evidence that after not arriving home, the bees are able to decide where they are on a map in their minds. This indicates that they have previously memorized the terrain and the location of their hives relative to various positions. This assertion, a metric (relating angles and distances) cognitive map including landmarks means bees have a longer lasting memory and a complexity of brain function that we have not previously attributed to organisms that don’t have spinal cords. If insects as simple as bees (with orders of magnitude fewer neurons than a mouse or rat) can have complex maps in their brains then more is going on than we previously realized and a new chapter in our thoughts on the minds of the smallest creeping and crawling creatures on the planet is about to begin.

Another take:


Solo Bacteria to Brew Biofuels

How many times will I tout the amazing qualities of our invisible microbial counterparts? Bacteria can do just about anything you can put a chemistry set to and they have been doing it for billions of years. If you think you are not surrounded by useful bacterial byproducts go look up the source of xanthan gum (hint: this common food additive does not come from a tree).

The subject of todays praise is biofuels. Bacteria have been used for producing biofuels such as ethanol for a long time now. However, the processing that comes before their final fermentative steps have been time consuming and expensive (enzymatic processes and breaking up the plant materials). If a single bacterial strain could produce the enzymes to break down the plants AND turn the byproducts into ethanol, that would save steps, time and money in the biofuel production game and money makes all the difference. A huge advance in this field has recently been brought to fruition by Professor Janet Westpheling at the University of Georgia. For the first time a single organism has been modified to handle the entire process single handedly and at high temperatures. She is calling it 2nd Generation CBP (Caldicellulosiruptor bescii P) and it seems we are due for a revolution in biofuels production as a result. For more details of her work see here:

Press release:



About drhhnz

Microbiology, Evolution and Bacteriophages. Lecturer, Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Massey University. Superhero name: Microbiology Girl. Auckland, New Zealand · Twitter: drhhnz
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