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Bumblebee Queens Can Survive Underwater For a Week

An unfortunate mistake revealed the insects’ unexpected superpower.

Common eastern bumblebee
Common eastern bumblebee | Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The remarkable discovery occurred while ecologist Sabrina Rondeau was investigating the effects of pesticide residue on common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) in a laboratory at Canada’s University of Guelph. More specifically, Rondeau was studying hibernating queen bees by keeping them in soil-filled tubes in a refrigerator, which mimics their natural winter hibernation environment.

One day, when she opened the refrigerator, to her horror she saw that some of the tubes had filled with water from condensation - and that four of the queens were totally submerged. “I kind of freaked out,” she told New Scientist. “I was sure the queens were dead.”

Happily, however, when she removed the queens from the water, they quickly recovered. Rondeau suspected the queens’ survival wasn’t a one-off occurrence, so decided to set up some more tests to investigate the creatures' newly discovered survival superpower.

So, she submerged 21 bees for a week. And, after just one day back in dry vials, the formerly wet, bedraggled bees were “fluffy again, beautiful, like nothing happened.”

Of the 21 bees, 17 were still alive eight weeks later - a survival rate of 81 percent. This was not far off from the survival rate of the control group: 15 of the 17 bees that were never submerged, or 88 percent, survived to eight weeks. How?

Whilst researchers don’t totally understand why they didn’t drown, the discovery makes sense in the context of bee hibernation. Every year, as temperatures begin to drop ahead of winter, male and worker bees die off, while queens burrow into the ground and hibernate. They can spend roughly eight months underground, waiting for spring to arrive so they can emerge and start new colonies. During that time, their metabolism plummets and they need very little oxygen.

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