How honeybees maintain protective clumps under stressful conditions

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A team of researchers at Harvard University has discovered the means by which honeybees keep their temporary clumps intact during adverse weather conditions. In their paper published in the journal Nature Physics, the group describes their study of honeybee behavior in their lab and what the found.

Once a year, honeybees, led by a queen, leave their nests in droves to find a new home. But because it takes some time to find a site and build a new nest, there is a period when they have no place to live. To protect themselves during this time, they congregate into masses that hang from tree branches—these clusters are made entirely of , each clinging to one another. In its most natural state, such clusters tend to form in the shape of a cone. But prior research has shown that the cone shape becomes flattened during inclement weather, such as when the wind blows. In this new effort, the researchers wondered how the honeybees knew what to do when adverse conditions arose. To find out, they gathered bees from the wild and put them in a container in their lab where they were allowed to form a cluster, dangling from a movable apparatus.

Once a cluster formed, the researchers moved the apparatus to pull the cluster back and forth, simulating the impact of wind pushing the branch upon which they hung. As the researchers watched, the cluster slowly flattened, hugging the apparatus. A flatter shape, the researchers noted, would reduce pressure from the wind, just as it would for a person lying on the ground versus standing up. By studying slow-motion video of the bees and tracking the movement of those on the surface of the cluster, the researchers developed a theory—they believed that the bees, upon feeling pulled from the bees they were holding on to, moved themselves to a place of higher stress.

To test this theory, the group created a computer simulation of the honeybees and their cluster and then gave those on the outer surface the ability to feel stress and to react to it by moving to a position of higher stress. They found the virtual bees changed the shape of their in the same way as did those in the real one, offering strong evidence that their theory was correct.


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More information: O. Peleg et al. Collective mechanical adaptation of honeybee swarms, Nature Physics (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-018-0262-1
Journal information: Nature Physics

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Citation: How honeybees maintain protective clumps under stressful conditions (2018, September 18) retrieved 19 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-09-honeybees-clumps-stressful-conditions.html
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Sep 19, 2018
Many years ago, driving through rural Wiltshire, I saw something truly amazing: a swarm of bees gathered for a few seconds in the air above a fence in the shape of a question mark - complete with the round dot. A few years after that, while on an artist's retreat in Devon, I sat in the kitchen of the host's house working on my novel. It was sweltering hot and the windows were open - thankfully, because the people had a bloody Aga, which was burning all the time, making it even hotter. I had heard a buzz that I thought was the lawnmower outside. But when I looked up from my laptop, I saw a large ball of bees that had come in through the window, to explore whether the kitchen might be a good spot for a hive! I left my laptop and the kitchen very quickly, and they must have decided against and exited from the window on the opposite side of the room. It was quite an experience.

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