Nebraska professor keen to learn more about bees

HASTINGS, Neb. – Growing up in Texas and Hawaii, Nichole Muszynski has never been passionate about bees. So it’s as much a surprise to the 32-year-old psychology professor as to anyone who knows her that she now finds them so becoming.

Muszynski, who moved to Hastings from Hawaii in June 2020, incorporates the study of bees into his lesson plans as an assistant professor of psychology and sociology at Hastings College.

To accommodate plan bee, four campus departments have pledged to fund the relocation of two beehives to the campus near the Morrison Reeves Science building. The interdisciplinary project, which Muszynski hopes will be ready in time for fall semester studies, will provide convenient access to bees for psychology-related experiments and studies in multiple departments.

“There are a lot of things to do with bees,” she said. “So far we’ve only really discussed ‘What would you do if you could do it?’ When we have bees on campus, I can have my students design bee experiments and come out and do them. ”

Having landed on the study of bees while pursuing psychology studies in Hawaii, Muszynski has since had a bee in his hat to them, devoting his dissertation to the study of their cognitive behavior while pursuing his doctorate in psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His lesson plans at Hastings College will incorporate the study of bees, the results of which will be documented in a series of publishable materials.

Entitled “Category Difference Facilitates Learning Weirdness in Bees (Apis mellifera)”, her award-winning thesis is a collaborative effort written with PA Couvillion when the two worked together at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center in Hawaii. Published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, the article recently received the Frank A. Beach Comparative Psychology Award as Best Article of the Year in the Division of Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology.

“It was a surprise, to be honest,” Muszynski said. “I am really interested in the study of non-human animals and humans. The aim is to see if there are any similarities or differences between different species and their cognitive abilities: learning, memory, attention and problem solving.

“Some people are looking to see if there are differences in general behavior, structures of groups of organisms. I’m more interested in learning and memory.”

What mystified Muszynski most about his studies of bees is how smart they appear to be. Compared to other non-human species, their ability to differentiate between shapes – given the comparative size of their brains – is truly confusing. Given an oddity problem requiring the identification of a strange shape from a group, the bees showed a surprising ability to find the outlier in about an hour, considerably faster than the times recorded by the young children, sea lions and chimpanzees.

Bees have 1 million neurons (brain cells). Comparatively, the human brain has 86 billion neurons, while cats or dogs have billions. And yet, the results presented in the study suggest that bees possess an incredible learning capacity similar to that of much larger animals.

“We gave the bees a quirk problem, putting down four objects,” she said. “The fact that a bee can make a problem that a human, a chimpanzee and a cat can do suggests that something is going on that has been conserved over time for this to happen.

“What’s surprising is how quickly they do it. It can take months and months for a cat or sea lion to learn this, and a bee can learn this problem in about an hour. going on? “

Given the immeasurable complexity of the human brain, researchers have long used non-human subjects to study the behavioral patterns of Homo sapiens. The fact that bees share certain human traits makes them ideal for psychology experiments, Muszynski said.

“The goal of my research was to focus more on the complex type of learning bees might show,” she said. “People are surprised that a lot of psychological experiments are being done on animals and also on vertebrae for human brain research. Much of what we know about the brain comes from invertebrates.

“To study the brain, you have to look at simpler organisms. They (non-human brains) have fewer neurons, and sometimes we can see how brain cells work in simpler organisms.”

Muszynski is excited about the endless possibilities the two hives will bring to campus to explore bee behaviors. Potential exploration topics may include research on the environmental impact on how they can survive the brutally cold Nebraska winters, how mites and beetles can infiltrate and destroy colonies, and what types of flowers they can find. bees prefer to pollinate.

“I don’t know if anyone has ever done an experiment to test bees’ preferences for flowers,” she said. “That’s a simple question with no quick scientific answer, which is pretty neat.”


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