Between satellites and honeycombs, shuttle is a veritable beehive of activity

While the Challenger crew has been occupied repairing a satellite, their honey-bee companions have been busy building a comb. This structure could be seen as a whitish patch on the transparent cover of their container when this was shown on space-to-ground TV Monday morning. Yet, as noted by Dan Poskevich, the bees kept for comparison in an identical container on the ground had not yet started comb-building. However, it is still too early to judge whether or not this relative delay is significant.

Mr. Poskevich - a student of Tennessee Technological Institute - had suggested the bee experiment. With Honeywell Inc. as sponsor, it is being carried out as part of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration student involvement program.

The immediate object is to see what, if any, differences there will be in honeycomb structure when the weightless bees have no sense of up and down. It already appears that, under this condition, the top of the box seems to them to be as good a place for comb construction as does the normal beekeeper's template inside the box.

This is a wax substrate with hexagonal outlines on which combs are built in commercial hives.

Eventually, if the bees lay eggs, these will be hatched and the resulting larvae and adult bees will be carefully studied. Bee expert Malcolm T. Sanford of the University of Florida, an adviser to the project, says he expects to get perhaps 100 ''space bees'' this way. James Peterson of Honeywell, who is providing technical help and guidance, says that the project may give insight into ways to optimize a structure - in this case, honeycomb - when a design that works on Earth is produced in space.

The roughly 3,300 bees seem to have adapted well to their new environment. As shown on TV by astronauts George Nelson and James van Hoften, they have established what appears to be normal hive activity.

They are maintaining ventilation and thus controlling humidity and temperature; distributing food from the water, nectar, and pollen provided; and segregating dead bees in an outer compartment of their container.

As of this writing, there were little more than two dozen dead bees. Mr. Sanford said that represents a normal attrition.

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