Journal of insect physiology

Hygropreference and brood care in the honeybee (Apis mellifera).

PMID 18822293


Terrestrial organisms need to limit evaporation from their bodies in order to maintain a homeostatic water balance. Owing to a large surface to volume ratio, arthropods are particularly susceptible to desiccation and have evolved behavioural and physiological mechanisms to conserve water. In social insects, water balance is also affected by the interactions between nestmates and by the architecture of the nest. For honeybees, humidity is particularly important for the brood because it affects the hatching success of eggs and because, unlike ants, honeybees cannot relocate their brood to parts of the nest with more favourable humidity. To advance the understanding of the water economy in honeybee nests, we investigated whether workers exhibit a hygropreference when exposed to a gradient of 24-90% relative humidity (RH) and whether the expression of this preference and their behaviour is affected by the presence of brood. The results show that young honeybee workers in the absence of brood exhibit a weak hygropreference for approximately 75% RH. When brood is present the expression of this preference is further weakened, suggesting that workers tend to the brood by distributing evenly in the gradient. In addition, fanning behaviour is shown to be triggered by an increase in humidity above the preferred level but not by a decrease. Our results suggest that humidity in honeybee colonies is actively controlled by workers.