A lack of adequate nutrition is believed to be one of the many causes linked to widespread decline of honeybees, otherwise known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). However, new research from Arizona State University suggests larva, or baby bees, that experience short-term starvation grow up to be more resistant to nutritional deprivation. 

As vital crop pollinators, bees play a key role in keeping the world's food supply in check. However, managed honeybee colonies have suffered staggering declines worldwide, with populations down to an estimated 2.5 million today from 5 million in the 1940s. 

What's worse is that the decline of honeybees coincides with a rising global demand for food. Therefore, learning how bees cope with stressors such as starvation is important for preserving both honeybee health and fulfilling the nutritional needs of 7.4 billion people.

"Surprisingly, we found that short-term starvation in the larval stage makes adult honey bees more adaptive to adult starvation. This suggests that they have an anticipatory mechanism like solitary organisms do," explained Ying Wang, lead author and assistant research professor from Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences. 

The anticipatory mechanism, also known as the "predictive adaptive response," explains a possible correlation between prenatal nutritional stress and adult metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes in humans. The two recent studies from Arizona State are the first to show that social organisms have this mechanism. 

Previous research on bee nutrition has mainly focused on adult bees, rather than their young. The recent studies, however, open new doors for learning more about CCD. 

"These studies show how the fundamental physiology of animals separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution maintain central, common features that allow us to learn more about ourselves from studying them and about them by looking to ourselves," said Rob Page, University Provost Emeritus and co-author of the studies. "They reveal key features of honeybee physiology that may help us find solutions to the serious problems of bee health world wide."

For instance, researchers discovered bees that experience starvation as larvae are able to reduce their metabolic rate, maintain their blood sugar levels, and use other fuels faster, compared to a control group of bees subjected to starvation. In the long run, having this ability increases a bee's chances of survival when food is scarce. 

"Manipulations during development may be able to increase the bees' resistance to different stressors, much like how an immunization works," Wang added. "However, we are at a starting point with this new discovery and we will have many questions to be answered."

Both studies were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.