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Social learning and knowledge sharing from generation to generation is a hallmark of a culture among living things. While it’s been documented in many animals including tiny naked mole rats, songbirds, sperm whales, and humans, early social learning has only just been demonstrated in insects. 

A study published March 9 in the journal Science is offering evidence that generational knowledge is fundamental for honeybees.

[Related: The first honeybee vaccine could protect the entire hive, starting with the queen.]

“We are beginning to understand that, like us, animals can pass down information important for their survival through communities and families. Our new research shows that we can now extend such social learning to include insects,” said study co-author and University of California San Diego biologist James Nieh, in a statement. 

Nieh and a team of researchers took a deeper look at a bee’s “waggle dance.”  Bees have a highly organized community structure and use the waggle dance to tell hivemates where critical food resources are located with an intricate series of movements. In the waggle dance, bees circle around in figure-eight patterns, while wagging their bodies during the central part of the dance. It’s kind of like a breakdance performed at a breakneck speed, with each bee moving a body length in less than one second. 

The very precise motions in the dance translate visual information from the environment around the hive, Sending accurate information is especially remarkable since bees must move rapidly across an often uneven honeycomb hive surface. The team discovered that this dance is improved by learning and can be culturally transmitted. 

Nieh and fellow researchers Shihao Dong, Tao Lin, and Ken Tan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences created colonies with bees that were all the same age as an experiment to watch how experienced forager bees pass this process down to younger, less-experienced nestmates. 

Bees typically begin to dance when they reach the right age and always follow the lead of experienced dancers first, but in these experimental colonies, they weren’t able to learn the waggle dance from older bees.

[Related: Bees choose violence when attempting honey heists.]

By comparison, the bees that shadowed other dancers in the control colonies that had a mix of different aged bees didn’t have problems learning to waggle. The acquired social cues stayed with them for the roughly 38 day lifespan of the bees in the study. 

Those that didn’t learn the correct waggle dance in that critical early stage of learning could improve by watching other dancers and by practicing, but they couldn’t correctly encode the distance which created distinct “dialects.” The dialect was then maintained by the bees for the rest of their lives. 

“Scientists believe that bee dialects are shaped by their local environments. If so, it makes sense for a colony to pass on a dialect that is well adapted to this environment,” said Nieh. The results therefore provided evidence that social learning shapes honey bee signaling as it does with early communication in many vertebrate species that also benefit from learning.

The next steps for this research is better understanding the role that the environment plays in shaping bee language. Additionally, the team would like to know more about external threats like pesticides to bees that could disrupt early language learning. 

“We know that bees are quite intelligent and have the capacity to do remarkable things,” said Nieh. “Multiple papers and studies have shown that pesticides can harm honey bee cognition and learning, and therefore pesticides might harm their ability to learn how to communicate and potentially even reshape how this communication is transmitted to the next generation of bees in a colony.”

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What’s Sweeter Than Honey To These Bees? Rotting Meat.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Vulture bees, a trio of stingless species in Costa Rica, never touch buds or blossoms. Instead, they get sugar from fruit and “extrafloral nectaries”—drippy nodules on the stems and leaves of some plants.

Vulture bees still need protein, though, and they get it from somewhere else entirely: rotting meat. But putrid flesh poses a few challenges not found in poppies or marigolds.  Corpses are full of microbes locked in a territorial battle for the remains. “It’s microbes fighting against other microbes that produce a lot of the toxins that we associate with dead bodies,” says Jessica Maccaro, a PhD student in entomology at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s just microbial warfare.” Vulture bees are able to digest that mess with the help of acid-loving microbes in their guts, according to a new survey of carnivorous bees published in microbiology journal mBio.

Although they can be lured in with hunks of raw chicken, vulture bees are otherwise a lot like honeybees. They live in large, honey-producing colonies, (which they defend by “immediately biting your head,” Maccaro says) and have systems of preserving the meat within the hive. “If you think about bringing a dead body to your colony, that sounds like a recipe for a pandemic,” Maccaro says. “So they store the meat in these special pots, and they wait 14 days,” until the meat is “cured,” like gravlax. Then, they feed it to their young, who need the protein to grow.

They even repurpose the leg pouches that honeybees use to carry pollen. “They [have] little chicken baskets,” study author Quinn McFredrick, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, said in a press release.

Jessica Maccaro, UCR entomology doctoral student, observing vulture bees feeding on chicken. (Quinn McFrederick/UCR)

The researchers also had some surprise meat lovers turn up at their experimental chicken traps. Three other species of bee, all previously thought to be vegetarian, turned out to be interested in meat when it was on offer. That shouldn’t be such a surprise, since plenty of animals have more flexible palates than we often imagine. (See: a giant tortoise hunting a tern, and a pelican eating a pigeon.) Bumblebees have been recorded harvesting meat as far back as the 1700s.

Like us, all bees rely heavily on the microbial partners in their guts to survive. Vegetarian bees share the same five core species, which chop up certain sugars and pollen byproducts that would otherwise be toxic to the insects.

The meat eaters play with an entirely different deck of microbes. Vulture bees were full of Lactobacillus strains—the type of bacteria that’s used to ferment sour beer, sourdough, and pickles—while the omnivores had the most diverse guts, with a mixture of standard-issue bacteria and some unusual strains.

Similar settlements have been found in other scavengers. Vultures have ultra-acidic stomachs that are full of the same bacteria that live on rotting carcasses. It appears that the combination of bone-melting acidity and hungry helpers allows them to ingest things like botulism toxins or anthrax that would kill many other animals.

Vulture bees chowing down on raw chicken. (Quinn McFrederick/UCR)

Unlike vultures, however, vulture bees don’t carry so many bacteria from rotting meat itself. Instead, their gut bacteria appear to be a combination of ancestral species, and new species that are often found on plants.

The team’s future work will unravel how those species actually contribute to digestion. But right now, they believe that the bacteria may help create the proper conditions for breaking down carrion.

“We hypothesize that the bees are using those acid-producing bacteria to acidify their gut,” Maccaro says. Vultures, she points out, have genes that allow them to produce lots of stomach acid on their own. The bees might not be able to do that, and so they’ve formed a relationship with bacteria that can. There’s a precedent in bumblebees. “They get these pathogens which infect them through their gut,” Maccaro says. “So they have all these Lactobacillus in there that will acidify the gut—and that literally pickle the pathogen.”

Building Older Students’ Organizational Skills

You’ve no doubt had students who were repeatedly unprepared for class or late with incomplete assignments. Although frustrating, these and other inadequate organizational skills don’t reflect low intelligence or motivation. Like other executive functions, such as judgment, prioritizing, emotional self-management, or critical thinking, organizational skills aren‘t inborn in students. However, you can help your secondary students get skills they may not have had the opportunity to learn in their earlier school years. 

In these grades, students begin to face increased demands on their neural networks, which continue in their future education and vocations. Building successful and consistent organizational skills allows them to manage their lives both in and out of school.

Guided Practice Improves Students’ OrganizationAL Skills 

Explicit instruction and opportunities to practice using their executive functions is important for teens’ brain development. Students can apply these stronger organizational skill sets for greater self-management of schoolwork with more success and less stress.

Potential outcomes of these boosted skills can promote the following:

Successful and timely completion of work and achieving better results efficiently

Improved organization of their backpacks, notebooks, binders, computer, and desk files

Reduction of scrambling

When students can keep track of assignments, supplies, and what they need to bring to school, they can more efficiently and accurately do required work unburdened by the stress of disorganization.

To promote students’ awareness that they can organize successfully, especially if they’ve experienced and been criticized for organizational failures, remind them of things they might already have organized, such as music on their playlists, friends’ social media/phone/email contacts, or photos. As they think about those things, they’ll begin to see that they can use those skills to better manage their schoolwork. 

Help Students Apply Past Successes to Future Strategies

Have your students consider systems of organization that are part of their lives and experiences. Then, invite them to actively build organizational skills with personal relevance. 

These are some concepts that students can evaluate for their organizational practices:

Textbooks. Select books (divided into chapters) that they think demonstrate good sequence and organization

The school year/vacation schedule. Do the vacation breaks promote organization of family travel or activity time? Would it be better to organize the year with shorter summer vacations and more frequent weeklong breaks throughout the year? 

Sports they might play. Are the games with any one opponent spread across the season? Does this give a team that’s not playing well at the beginning of the season the time needed for players to improve? Is there enough of a break, especially after long travel days, for players to be fully rested for final and playoff games? 

Classification systems of plants and animals. Most biologists find the current classifications (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), such as what distinguishes a plant from an animal or an amphibian from a reptile, to be very effective. They find the characteristics that denote the members of the group to be clearly listed and identifiable. What do students see in these classifications that they could apply to help them organize their computer files/documents?

Model Strategies That Build Skills 

Help students recognize how the strategies they choose for organization can increase their options for participating in activities they enjoy. Successful organization rewards them with increased free time.

For students who haven’t had successful experiences yet and need support with organizing their time, demonstrating those strategies and offering students feedback about how they can use them is crucial. 

Here are some examples:

Create color-coded folders, note cards, or computer files. These help students organize what they need for each class and project. 

Practice making master folders for files. To get organized for a project, students start by looking at the various types of information they have and make folders labeled with category names they choose. Make sure to explain that these category names and the items in each folder are just preliminary. As the project or unit progresses, they go through each category folder and remove files that don’t fit with the others and create revised categories.

Keep a master list of all active files. Guide students to expand their short-term organizational skills with the computer or paper. Once a month, they can remove items no longer needed from each folder and the master list. 

Encourage the use of visual (graphic) organizers. Your students have likely had some experience with Venn diagrams, maps, or graphs. Show them how these tools they previously used, which display related information for relevant comparisons, were actually graphic organizers. 

Students also benefit from the guidance of people they respect, both in and out of school. Invite them to consider someone they know who is well organized. What does that person do to stay organized? 

Emphasize Metacognition 

Encourage students to think about how they think regarding organization. Doing this can promote recognition of their strengths and how to use them in different ways, as well as individual challenges they want to adjust. As students are guided to recognize their progress in achieving their goals and the strategies they used, they sustain motivation and exert greater effort as they become more independent learners.

You can offer prompts for metacognition about organization that students can consider individually and potentially share in class, such as these: 

What did I do that was the best use of my time? 

What improvement did I first notice?

What did I try that I’d do again?

What would I do differently next time?

Another option is for secondary students to keep a list of strategies that worked for them and how they could apply these in the future. 

Reflection is Important for Teachers Too

As you provide your students with guidance and practice opportunities to build their organizational skills, take time to recognize and appreciate the benefits of your efforts. You might first note greater student success in things such as staying on top of assignments, class preparedness, and timely completion of long-term projects. Continue to take the time and acknowledge your impact on their independence, as learners and in their careers, with the organizational skills and strategies you helped them build.

Dance Marathon, A Big Weekend Benefit

Dance Marathon, a Big Weekend Benefit An all-nighter, minus textbooks

Students dance the night away during the 2007 Dance Marathon.

Hundreds of students are planning to pull an all-nighter this weekend, but they won’t be studying. They’ll be taking part in Boston University’s annual Dance Marathon, a charity event that raises money to fight pediatric AIDS.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says cochair Abby Schreer (COM’10), who became involved in the event as a freshman. “It’s a very motivating environment.”

This year’s marathon takes place from 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, to 9 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, in the Sargent Gym. Participants hope to raise $50,000 for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation and the nonprofit Camp Heartland. “If Penn State’s dance marathon can raise almost $8 million, we can raise $50,000,” Schreer says.

Dance marathons originated as a fad (along with flagpole sitting and six-day bicycle races) during the 1920s and persisted through the 1930s. Couples danced for hundreds of hours, sometimes for as long as two months at a time. The longest marathon took place in Spokane, Wash., in 1935, and lasted 1,638 hours.

Contestants were guaranteed shelter and 12 meals a day — a luxury during the Great Depression — and rules required that they remain in motion for 45 minutes every hour. Dancers slept in shifts by tying their wrists around their partners’ necks and being lugged across the dance floor. Winners received hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.

BU’s event does not have the intensity of those marathons — participants will stay on their feet for 18 hours — but it’s probably more fun. Themes ranging from Disney and ’80s music to sports and pajama parties will be introduced throughout the night, with prizes awarded to dancers with the best costumes.

“People start to fade at about 2 a.m.,” Schreer says. “The themes help to break up the monotony.” And plenty of food is available to keep up flagging energy levels.

An avid dancer, Stephanie Santana (CAS’10) participated in Dance Marathon in 2008 to test her endurance. “It was a lot of fun,” she says, “but by the end, all I wanted to do was stick my feet in a bucket of ice water.”

Dance Marathon began in 2003 as a collaboration among the Inter Fraternity-Sorority Council and Pan-Hellenic Council, the Student Union, Students for Camp Heartland, and BUnited. More than 100 dancers, volunteers, visitors, and “moralers” (who help dancers keep their energy up and feet moving during the 18-hour marathon) raised $30,000. Now the marathon is the biggest annual fundraiser on campus and has brought in more than $300,000 to date.

The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation reaches more than a million women each year with services at more than 750 sites in 20 countries. Its goal is to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Camp Heartland is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth, and families facing HIV/AIDS, poverty, and grief. It offers a free week of summer camp to children from around the country and from all backgrounds affected by, or infected with, HIV/AIDS.

Dance Marathon participants are required to raise at least $150. Registration is closed, but supporters can donate by logging onto GoodSearch; the Web site donates one penny every time a user visits and searches for “Boston University Dance Marathon.”  

Vicky Waltz can be reached at [email protected]; follow her on Twitter at @vickywaltz.

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Teacher Appreciation: Why We Teach

All good teaching originates from the motive of generosity. To help others understand history, literature, mathematics or science is the ground upon which all learning stands. Fundamentally, education is the transmission of wisdom from one scholar to another.

Indeed, this is what great teachers do every day. They open their classrooms and provide guidance, knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm. Such lifelong service requires great fortitude. Many in the general public believe that teachers have an easy career that finishes every weekday at 3 PM, freeing them from responsibility for the remainder of the day. But for those who teach, the unstinting physicality of standing and circulating all day in the classroom, the ongoing preparation of lessons, and the relentless redesign and sequencing of instruction are exhausting. With the immeasurable number of emotional interactions between ourselves and our students, our benevolence is bound to flag. Fortunately, this is normal and cured with some self-care.

Years ago, a dear friend and Latin teacher was walking past my classroom as I was ushering my students in before the bell.

“Servus Suvorum Dei,” he said.

“What, Mike?”

“The servant of the servants of God,” he translated. This was his definition of why we teach: to become the leader who serves.

I reflected on that medieval vow as I saw the faces before me — trusting or skeptical, smiling or nervous. They really did motivate me to serve them. It was an unflinching commitment.


Similarly, in her book What Keeps Teachers Going, Sonia Nieto states that a successful teacher is one who places a high value on students’ culture, race, language, gender, experiences, families and sense of self. These teachers sustain high expectations of all students, especially for those whom others may have given up on. They stay committed in spite of predictable obstacles and create a safe classroom haven for their students. By being resilient, by challenging the status quo of educational bureaucracy, and by viewing themselves as life-long learners, they come to care about, respect and love their students. To understand your own motivation to teach, you explore your own history of learning. Nieto says it is the “experiences, identities, values, beliefs, attitudes, hangups, biases, wishes, dreams and hopes” that make teachers successful. She has her teachers write about those experiences that influenced them to become teachers. It is only by mining their own influences they can begin to understand what motivated them to become a teacher in the first place. So teaching becomes a career-long process of uncovering both your own and others’ stories.

Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s examination of what makes successful teachers. He identifies one quality as the most significant: “withitness” or regard for student perspective. This means that in the classroom, there is a high-quality feedback loop between teacher and student. Teachers communicate both verbally and nonverbally to their students in a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.

Of course, optimism also helps. If every year, you received the same students you left off with the year before, teaching would be much easier. But new students, new sections and new school years require a new approach. What startles one class into discussion may leave the next group cold.

Ambition and Passion

Ironically, not all of us set out to be teachers. Many of us to come to teaching from other paths. One middle school teacher who struggled with math and self-confidence was told by her fourth grade teacher that she would never amount to anything. Then in fifth grade, she met Mr. Murphy, who told her she would be getting A’s in math from that point forward. In fact, she became a math teacher and did her student teaching alongside her mentor. Now she works in a large urban area with kids who also seem to get A’s in math.

Still, others of us were teaching our stuffed bears and younger siblings in our bedrooms when we were ten years old, and knew we were born to teach. But it was the influence of a great teacher who sparked our ambition into a passion. One ESL teacher says, “Although I started school barely speaking English, my teachers loved me. So I loved them back. Because of their influence, I am now one of their colleagues in the same school. They support me now just as much as they did when I was their student.”

Likewise, teaching becomes the embodiment of our vocation. “I teach because I love to learn,” says a special education teacher. “I am doing what I want to do. I am becoming the very teacher I always wanted to be.”

In brief, this is why we teach: to improve the transmission of learning, to honor the scholarship we have so dearly won, and to inspire our students’ compassion and ideas. In these challenging times for teaching and learning, we must persist to persevere.

What The Dippin’ Dots ‘Cold Chain’ Can Teach Us About Covid

Countless people across the country are desperate to get their hands on the coronavirus vaccine. But the same could be said for another icy treat with some surprising similarities: Dippin’ Dots.

Invented by a microbiologist in 1988, Dippin’ Dots’ self-proclaimed “Ice Cream of the Future” maintains its characteristic beaded form only if stored at -49 degrees Fahrenheit. Slipping even a few degrees in the wrong direction can jeopardize the quality of a batch.

Shipping a coronavirus vaccine is a similarly delicate dance.

The COVID vaccine currently being shipped around the country—manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech and granted an emergency use authorization on Friday—needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, or else important components can degrade. Another vaccine, made by Moderna in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and expected to get its authorization this week, requires storage and shipping at -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keeping millions of doses that chilly is no easy task, and necessitates what manufacturers call a “cold chain”: an infrastructure that standardizes temperature throughout every step of shipping and delivery. Pfizer already has one so-called freezer farm in Kalamazoo and anticipates scaling up with a second in Wisconsin by the end of the year, but such facilities represent just one link in the long chain.

Distributing a coronavirus vaccine is going to be tricky—and it’s also going to be a lot like shipping a container of Dippin’ Dots ice cream. Here’s how the ice cream makers do it, and what vaccine distributors can learn from their chill process.

From dot (and dose) to doorstep

Standard freezers are set to bottom out at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, which is significantly warmer than the temperature Dippin’ Dots have to be stored, according to Dippin’ Dots Chief Development Officer Stan Jones. Still, the company manages to ship their product on a massive scale—while 2023 sales have been down about 50% due to the shuttering of theme parks and stadiums, a typical year sees around 100 million servings sprinkled across the globe.

Pfizer is also using special packaging: it’s shipping doses in “pizza trays,” each loaded with 195 vials of frozen vaccine. This design choice limits where the vaccine will get sent, says Julie Swann, a health systems expert at North Carolina State University. A minimum purchase order is about 1,000 doses, so given that the aim is to vaccinate as much of the population as possible, it won’t make sense to send batches to rural areas with small numbers of people.

“They probably designed it with the idea that someone would take out an entire tray at a time, and for a mass vaccination clinic, that’s great,” Swann says. “It just is harder when we’re trying to vaccinate priority populations and they are spread out.”

It’s possible that, in time, Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies will adapt their packaging and shipping techniques to accommodate smaller orders. There’s precedent for another way of transporting a vaccine at an ultra-low temperature without much of an existing infrastructure. To ship the Ebola vaccine, the Bill Gates-funded Global Good developed the ArkTek, a portable thermos that could keep up to 200 vials of vaccine at -112 degrees Fahrenheit.

But for now, those pizza trays are pretty important. Not only do these storage vessels keep their cargo insulated from the elements, they also protect the dots (and drugs) from the stuff keeping them cold.

Jones says the brunt of Dippin’ Dots’ domestic business relies on dry ice, and both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines will also use it. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, and it’s quite different from the stuff you plop into your soda. Manufacturers create it by subjecting gas with a high concentration of CO2 to intense pressure, then cooling it so it takes liquid form. Some of the liquid re-vaporizes once the pressure lets up, which causes the rest to solidify.

Dippin’ Dots packs dry ice around and on top of its disposable containers, and can go through 14 semi-trailer trucks full of the stuff a week in their typical summer peak. Because dry ice is a frosty -109 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s perfect for keeping an insulated chamber (and whatever sits inside it) cold for a few hours. But using it comes with a few complications that vaccine companies will have to consider.

For starters, dry ice is dangerous. It’s cold enough to cause burns and frostbite when touched barehanded. Additionally, it sublimates quickly into carbon dioxide gas as it warms up. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, it can displace the breathable air around you and cause you to suffocate. Jones says Dippin’ Dots workers need special training to safely handle dry ice in enclosed spaces such as the back of a truck, and anyone using it to ship pharmaceuticals will have to follow similar protocols.

A further complication for vaccine distributors to keep in mind is supply. Much of the CO2 gas used for dry ice is itself a byproduct of ethanol and fertilizer. When Americans cut back on driving in the spring, the demand for ethanol decreased; however, it’s now rebounded, so there’s no shortage of raw gas. But that carbon dioxide doesn’t pressurize itself, and there are only a handful of major dry ice producers in the country, according to Jones. Already, some companies have reported bottlenecks and regional shortages. Pfizer has purchased equipment to manufacture its own dry ice, but regional health care systems will also need to source and stock it.

And having a reliable cold chain means having enough dry ice for a rainy day. Once a shipment leaves Dippin’ Dots’ distribution center in Lancaster, California, the company monitors weather and other conditions that can cause delays in transit. In instances where it looks like a shipment’s stock of dry ice will run out before it reaches its destination, Jones says, a third-party company has to intercept and add more. Wastage is an inevitable part of the equation. Jones declined to give specific numbers, but says a small percentage of Dippin’ Dots’ shipments are lost to transit delays.

Vaccines can spoil, too. While Swann says this should not be a sizable issue in the early weeks of distribution, we may start to see doses go bad if officials overestimate demand in a particular region. Pfizer says its vaccine can be stored for up to 30 days inside those pizza tray containers, but that assumes a new batch of dry ice every five days.

Cold chains can’t end with delivery; a vaccine must then be stored on-site in a hospital or a pharmacy until it’s administered. Hospitals and other distribution points will have to decide whether to rely on a constant supply of dry ice or hard-to-get, colder-than-cold freezers.

Since 2012, Dippin’ Dots has sold the ultra-low freezers it uses for storage before shipping to various industries. Vaccine distributors and point-of-care locations, like pharmacies and hospitals, have even reached out to the company about renting equipment, since two of its freezer models would be cold enough for the Pfizer vaccine.

“Several people have been contacting us to purchase these ultra-low temperature freezers, but most of them want to do something on a lease basis, very short-term, because once the pandemic is over and vaccine distribution kind of falls off, they don’t want to have to keep those ultra-low temp freezers,” Jones says. “The problem with that is, those freezers are special duty, and once you put vaccines in them, you really don’t want to go back to putting food products in them.”

Very few medical providers will have ultra-cold freezers on hand to store the Pfizer vaccine, Swann says. Instead, states are scrambling to buy them, and at least half a dozen predict they will face challenges due to limited supply.

Payment is yet another similarity between the operations of a cold chain for Dippin’ Dots and for a vaccine. Consumers pay for Dippin’ Dots’ cold chain in the label price of their ice cream, and even though coronavirus vaccines themselves will be free to Americans, state governments will have to foot the bill for their distribution. Those costs will have to be recouped by removing funding from other programs, Swann says, so they’ll ultimately come out of residents’ pockets.

“The people are going to end up paying for the logistics of the vaccine,” she says. A shot in the arm might not be as immediately satisfying as a spoonful of futuristic ice cream, but the pay-off of a COVID vaccine will be well worth the cost—and the wait.

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