Bees, Please: Stop Dying in Your Martian Simulator

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Before astronauts head to the International Space Station, they spend years getting ready: They float in pools to practice for spacewalks, learn how to run different types of science experiments, and even practice how to poop. For future missions to the moon and Mars, scientists first try living and working in space-analog environments on volcanoes, deep inside caves, at the South Pole, and even underwater.

One of the world’s newest space analogs is inside a white ziggurat on top of a former nuclear bunker in Pila, Poland. Known as the Lunares Research Station, this privately funded facility simulates what it’s like to live and work at a base on the moon or Mars, but it doesn’t only work with humans. In a recent experiment, the potential space cadets were 90,000 bees who were sent in to learn what it’s like to buzz around the red planet.

The goal was to see whether bees could join a mission to the moon or Mars, where these prolific pollinators could help sustain gardens attached to a base. Lunares researchers wanted to observe how life in an enclosed space would affect honeybee colonies, so they ran two two-week-long experiments, known as Habeetat-1 and Habeetat-2. The apiary was inside a sealed tent, where scientists monitored the hives’ temperature, humidity, and hive weight, among other things. The study was presented at the International Astronautical Congress last week.

A ULMonitor chip was used to track the state of the hive, such as its temperature, humidity, and weight.

Photograph: Lunares Research Station/Space Garden

Bees have ventured into space on several occasions before, to study the effects of microgravity on their physiology and behavior, but no research has looked at the behavior of an entire colony under isolated conditions, says Aleksander Wasniowski, the R&D manager at Lunares. The initial results weren’t great.

“Around 1,000 to 1,200 bees died every four days,” Wasniowski says. “It was almost a little scary because you don’t see this in nature, but in isolation the dead bees covered the floor.”

In a normal, garden-variety hive, it’s not unusual for hundreds of bees to die per day. A honeybee queen can produce well over a thousand offspring per day, more than enough to replenish the dead. But Wasniowski and his colleagues found that the hive also stopped reproducing. The hive’s temperature then dropped as a result, which killed yet more bees.

The bees also didn’t behave as the researchers expected them to. Some bees would venture out to get water and crowd around lights, but Wasniowski says they totally ignored the pots of lavender deposited throughout the tent as well as a tray of spirulina powder the researchers had placed out as a pollen equivalent. Instead, the bee colony adopted a defensive posture similar to “overwintering,” in which bee colonies enter a state of reduced activity to survive the cold months.

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