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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Some Bees Clean Up Well—Without the Soap

Parents are always telling you to watch out for dirt and grime. You’re probably used to them saying “Brush your teeth!” “Wash your hands!” “Clean your room!”

Well, kids, you’re not the only ones trying to keep tidy. It turns out that many animals—even insects—spend time grooming themselves.

Have you ever seen a cat or dog lick its paws? Or watched monkeys at the zoo picking bugs out of their fur?

Animals have their own kind of hygiene. Staying clean helps protect them against harmful diseases and yucky parasites.

Honey bees are actually some of the cleanest creatures. They’re also the world’s No. 1 pollinators. Without realizing it, they carry tiny specks of pollen from one flower to the next, while buzzing around in search of sweet nectar. This helps the plants to form plump fruits and berries later on.

What are some of your favorite fruits, veggies, and nuts? Many of these are produced with the help of honey bees.

Like other creatures, bees can pick up some nasty diseases and parasites. But one way the insects defend themselves is by staying super-clean!

Bob Danka, an Agricultural Research Service bug specialist, studies bees. He says one of the honey bee’s worst enemies is the tracheal (TRAY-key-al) mite. The word "trachea" means windpipe. It needs to be clear for the insect to breathe.

“These mites crawl around on the bee, trying to invade its airways,” he says. “Eventually they can get inside, clog up the airways and cause serious health problems.”

Can you imagine a bug trying to get into your mouth or nose and into your lungs? Eeeewwww!! Fortunately, bees can use their legs to rub off creepy-crawlies from their bodies. The bees’ legs work like small combs that can brush mites out of the insects’ tiny body hairs.

Danka and another entomologist, Jose Villa, wanted to find out how different groups of bees groomed themselves. They wondered: Do some bees clean themselves differently, or more often, than other bees?

So, they studied one group of bees that were all related to one another. These bees all shared a gene, or several genes, which give them greater natural protection against the mites.

Genes are passed down from a parent to child. In humans, they’re responsible for traits like eye and hair color. Certain genes can also control behavior that helps protect animals against disease.

The researchers also studied bees that didn’t have special protection or resistance to the mites.

For their experiment, the scientists placed the mites right onto the bees’ bodies. Then they waited to see how the bees reacted. Since tracheal mites are so tiny (about the size of the head of a pin), they had to place them on the bees with a very small and delicate tool: an eyelash mounted to a toothpick!

Danka and Villa watched the bees through a special see-through box made of glass. That way they could study the bees’ every move without getting stung!

The scientists found that the bees that had built-in protection against mites were very good groomers. Those bees seemed to know whenever the mites were crawling on their bodies. As soon as they’d feel one, they’d rub it off—just like you’d flick off a bug crawling on you!

The other bees didn’t groom as much. The researchers think that bees that groom often are better protected from deadly mites over the course of their lives. These bees’ hygiene habits help them to stay healthy.

And then they’re ready to make the yummy honey that bees are so famous for!—By Erin Peabody, ARS.


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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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