Quirks & Quarks

August 6: Best of Quirks & Quarks - Insects, arthropods and creepy crawlies

We share some of our favourite stories about creepy-crawlies from the past season, including how ants communicate by swapping vomit, how social spiders hunt in packs, and why you might want to wear a green shirt in mosquito country.

Water bears walking, honeybees screaming, weaving spiders learning, and more.

A 3D rendered illustration of a tardigrade. These micro animals are unusual in the animal kingdom, partly because they walk along on eight legs instead of swimming or slithering like other animals of their size. (3Dstock / Shutterstock)

On this week's episode of The Best of Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald:

Ants share vomit to feed each other and communicate within the colony
Originally broadcast Dec. 11, 2021

Feeding through regurgitation, called trophallaxis, is known in many animals, including many species of ant. But in ants, this phenomenon seems to also serve an important role in organizing the colony. According to a new study by Adria LeBoeuf, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, this behaviour has a few functions, but a major one is to create what is called a "social circulatory system" for the colony. She found that beyond nutrients, ants are passing along proteins, hormones, and fragments of genetic material — RNA. 

A rare social spider hunts in packs in order to kill large prey
Originally broadcast March 19, 2022

Violette Chiara, an animal cognition researcher currently at the University of Vigo in Spain, led a study of one of only two species of spider known to coordinate behaviour to hunt in packs. The spiders carefully monitor the vibration of their communal web to synchronize their movements to attack and kill prey that can be up to 700 times larger than themselves. Her research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

VIDEO — Social spiders stopping in synchrony to sense vibration created by prey in their communal web.

How watching water bears walk could help us make small and squishy robots
Originally broadcast Oct. 9, 2021

Researchers studying the tardigrade have figured out how this small, soft micro-animal walks, even though it defies all expectations by doing so. Jasmine Nirody wanted to look at how something so small and soft-bodied could walk, and how they walked. She and her team recorded hours of tardigrades walking along a special gel in a petri dish, and they found that they walk in a manner similar to that of insects 500,000 times their size. This could help solve evolutionary questions about tardigrades, as well as help inform new ways of building soft robotics. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

Mosquitos see red to find humans to feed on
Originally broadcast Feb. 12, 2022

Mosquitoes know we are in the vicinity because they can smell the carbon dioxide we exhale. But new research by Dr. Jeffrey Riffell, a biologist from the University of Washington in Seattle has found that they home in on our location because that scent stimulates them to look for anything in the red-orange colour spectrum, which includes human skin, regardless of pigmentation. His research was published in Nature Communications.

Urban bees find food easier than rural bees, according to their waggle dances
Originally broadcast Oct. 16, 2021

Researchers decoded honeybees' waggle dances to determine how far they have to travel to find food. Bees in agricultural areas have to travel twice as far as those living in the "concrete jungle" of downtown London, according to the research. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Read more: Dancing bees reveal that U.K. cities offer more accessible food than the countryside
Beekeeper and chairman of The London Beekeepers Association John Chapple installs a new bee hive on an urban rooftop garden in London, England. Rooftop gardens such as this are helping urban bees amidst the 'concrete jungle' of a big city. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Asian honeybees sound a screamy alarm when murder hornets attack
Originally broadcast Nov. 13, 2021

Asian honeybees have been heard and recorded making a previously unknown sound, which is used to alert their hive mates to the presence of dangerous giant Asian hornets. Heather Mattila, an associate professor of biological sciences at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, described the noisy, high-pitched alarm call made by the Asian honeybee as an "antipredator pipe." Her new study found that its purpose is to alert other bees to the presence of the large attackers, which are sometimes known as murder hornets.

VIDEO — Asian honey bees sound the alarm (Wellesley College)

Do spiders learn to weave better webs?
Originally broadcast Oct. 2, 2021

This week's question comes from Emily Trim in Sooke, B.C. She asks: "Do spiders get better at making their webs with experience?" Pierre-Olivier Montiglio, an assistant professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Quebec at Montreal, says we know that spiders are great learners. They can learn to adjust the tension of their web, or where they build their web, or which part of their web they will make larger.