Science News By Emily Conover September 17, 2018
In lab tests, the insects adjust their positions to flatten out the cluster and keep it stable.
A stiff breeze is no match for a clump of honeybees, and now scientists are beginning to understand why.
When scouting out a new home, the bees tend to cluster together on tree branches or other surfaces, forming large, hanging clumps which help keep the insects safe from the elements. To keep the clump together, individual honeybees change their positions, fine-tuning the cluster’s shape based on external forces, a new study finds. That could help bees deal with such disturbances as wind shaking the branches.
A team of scientists built a movable platform with a caged queen in the center, around which honeybees clustered in a hanging bunch. When the researchers shook the platform back and forth, bees moved upward, flattening out the clump and lessening its swaying, the team reports September 17 in Nature Physics.
The insects, the scientists hypothesized, might be moving based on the strain — how much each bee is pulled apart from its neighbors as the cluster swings. So the researchers made a computer simulation of a bee cluster to determine how the bees decided where to move.
When the simulated bees were programmed to move to areas of higher strain, the simulation reproduced the observed flattening of the cluster, the researchers found. As a bee moves to a higher-strain region, the insect must bear more of the burden. So by taking one for the team, the bees ensure the clump stays intact.
O. Peleg et al. Collective mechanical adaptation of honeybee swarms. Nature Physics. Published online September 17, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41567-018-0262-1.