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Secrets of the hive

The ability to capture and display the inner workings of a bee hive in infra-red reveals yet more extraordinary behaviour. It's long been known that bee colonies are highly organised, but their sophistication seems to go ever further. Here, specialised 'heater bees' maintain temperature in the brood and determine the futures of the developing grubs. Here too, the reason for all the frenetic activity performed by bees becomes clear.

You may think honey bees are simply annoying creatures which can ruin a picnic, but with its workers bees, drones and queen, a bee hive is like a mind, a collective intelligence as powerful as the biggest computer - except that your PC doesn't make honey. Bees are amazing. It may look like chaos, but inside a bee hive is one of the most sophisticated living things in the history of evolution. One bee on its own doesn't amount to much, but taken together a very different picture emerges. Seen normally, all these bees may look the same, but go beyond the ordinarily visible into the infra-red and some bees are warmer than others. Some glow bright orange like hot coals, radiating heat to their surroundings. Others are dark and cool. It's the precise control of heat that allows a bee colony to be such a unique and successful form of organisation. But what is all this heat for? Heat is concentrated in one central area of the hive, the brood nest, where young bee pupae are growing. A bee that may appear relatively still, when looked at in infra-red is glowing bright orange, revealing its role as a specialist heater bee. The bee warms itself up by vibrating its flight muscles - vibrations that allow it to warm up to 44 degrees centigrade, previously thought to be high enough to kill it. Others that seem to be grabbing a quiet snooze are actually tight little balls of fire that are acting in a motherly role to keep the brood warm. Without warmth the babies will not grow and develop. It is also now clear why bees spend so long foraging for nectar that will be turned into honey, as over two thirds of the hive's honey goes on the central heating of the colony. A rarely seen moment is caught on camera when an exhausted heater bee is topped up by a refuelling bee just returned from foraging. These images have revealed something extrodinary. By precisely controlling the temperature, these heater bees control the destiny of the young. Incubated at 34 degress, the newly born bees are likely to become humble housekeepers, but kept just one and a half degrees warmer, they may instead turn into intelligent and high-ranking foragers, living up to 10 times longer. None of these new discoveries would have been possible without our ability to see into the infra-red spectrum.

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