It's one of the hallmarks of spring: a swarm of bees on the move. But how a swarm locates a new nest site when less than 5% of the community know the way remains a mystery. Curious to find out how swarms cooperate and are guided to their new homes, Tom Seeley, a neurobiologist from Cornell University, and engineers Kevin Schultz and Kevin Passino from The Ohio State University teamed up to find out how swarms are guided to their new home and publish their findings on October 3rd 2008 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, http://jeb.biologists.org.
According to Schultz there are two theories on how swarms find the way. In the 'subtle guide' theory, a small number of scout bees, which had been involved in selecting the new nest site, guide the swarm by flying unobtrusively in its midst; near neighbours adjust their flight path to avoid colliding with the guides while more distant insects align themselves to the guides' general direction. In the 'streaker bee' hypothesis, bees follow a few conspicuous guides that fly through the top half of the swarm at high speed.
Schultz explains that Seeley already had still photographs of the streaks left by high-speed bees flying through a swarm's upper layers, but what Seeley needed was movie footage of a swarm on the move to see if the swarm was following high-velocity streakers or being unobtrusively directed by guides. Passino and Seeley decided to film swarming bees with high-definition movie cameras to find out how they were directed to their final destination.
But filming diffuse swarms spread along a 12m length with each individual on her own apparently random course is easier said than done. For a start you have to locate your camera somewhere along the swarm's flight path, which is impossible to predict in most environments. The team overcame this problem by relocating to Appledore Island, which has virtually no high vegetation for swarms to settle
|Contact: Kathryn Phillips|
The Company of Biologists