Hive Minded

A student in a bee suit studies live specimens

“It’s really easy to overlook insects, especially bees and ants, but they actually interact constantly every day, kind of like people,” says Rebecca Zhou ’19. “They have very complex social structures that a lot of vertebrates don’t even have.”

Orange abdomen, pink thorax.

Carefully, as a honeybee darts its tiny tongue to slurp concentrated sugar water, Rebecca Zhou ’19 readies her rainbow of paint pens. She shakes the orange and pink ones to get the color flowing, then gently dabs the bee’s fuzzy body—two dots on the abdomen, one on the thorax. The tiny forager, drugged-up on a sweet solution three times as potent as nectar in nature, hardly seems to notice. Later, Zhou will try to spot the marked bee as it jets back to its hive, fresh from its food run.

“I’m actually terrified of bees!” Zhou admits. You wouldn’t know it. On this steamy July morning outside Martin Biological Laboratory, clad in sunhat, T-shirt, and shorts, she’s more protected from the heat than from a potential sting.

A honeybee study may seem a strange choice for a student with melissophobia, but Zhou’s anxiety actually factored into her decision to participate: She wanted to face her fear.

A Velay fellow, Zhou spent her summer recording sights, sounds, and scents in one of several Swarthmore projects exploring the secrets of this remarkable insect. In doing so, she and her fellow student researchers joined a colony of Swarthmoreans acting on behalf of—and in the vein of—the beloved bee.

Read the full story in the Bulletin