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Romeo-and-Juliet leafhoppers, sleep-deprived honeybees and more in this week’s news

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2:31pm, May 18, 2011
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First leaf-to-leaf duet
Grapevine leafhoppers, known to whisper sweet nothings by sending vibrations through plant stems, can also blow kisses to a potential mate on another plant. Even though their leaves sprang from separate cuttings, a Romeo and Juliet of grapevine leafhoppers buzzed a duet across a chasm of 6 centimeters. This feat represents the first experimental result showing that insect vibrations can buzz from plant to plant, researchers in Italy and Slovenia report online May 5 in PLoS ONE. Now researchers want to know how the insects accomplish the duets. —Susan Milius


Shift-worker honeybees
That icon of diligence, the honeybee, may offer an insect perspective on the effects of shift work on sleep patterns. Training bees to visit feeders during certain hours allowed researchers to watch what happened when those feeders closed down and bees essentially had to shift their work hours. Two days later, the workers had indeed added some naps in what used to be working hours. And overall the bees didn’t change the total amount of time they spent either working or apparently asleep, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Cornell report in an upcoming Animal Behaviour. —Susan Milius


Grazing sex ratios
Male-to-female ratios in one kind of bird may be skewed by how many sheep or cattle are chewing away in the neighborhood. In experimental plots with just a few sheep or a mixture of a few sheep and cattle, the offspring of meadow pipits tilted more than 50 percent toward sons. The grassland birds’ proportion of male offspring dipped a bit with heavy grazing, but dropped to about a third in plots with no grazing at all. This first demonstration of a grazing effect could help wildlife managers trying to predict bird population changes, researchers in Scotland say in an upcoming Biology Letters. —Susan Milius


Dragonflies home in
Like ace fighter pilots, dragonflies can zip and spin through the air without losing sight of their prey. A new exploration of dragonfly brains shows that one neuron may play a big role in this targeting. This cell, called CSTMD1, ignores distracting sights, usually flipping on after the dragonfly spots a prey-sized moving object, researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia report May 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience. To test the neuron’s killer instincts, the group monitored its electric signals in live bugs that were watching images on a screen. Even against a busy background filled with bushes or grass, CSTMD1 preferentially kicked into gear in response to fast-moving dots. —Daniel Strain

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