Most commonly known for being critical pollinators for flowers, fruits, and vegetables and their ability to produce honey, honeybees and specifically their behaviors as a colony are the focus of a new Harvard University study recently published in Nature Physics. Before going into more detail about this study, it is important to know how honeybees live. Honeybees live in colonies, also called “the hive,” and within the colony there are three types of honeybees –drones, workers, and the queen. Drones are the male honeybees that mate with the queen and workers are the female honeybees that have a variety of roles such as collecting food for the colony, cleaning and circulating air in the hive, and building and protecting the hive. Last but certainly not least is the queen bee. The queen honeybee is in charge of the entire hive with her main job being to lay eggs for the future generations; she can lay up to 2,500 eggs in a single day.
Having the ability to produce pheromones that can help guide the other honeybees’ behaviors, it is no surprise that wherever the queen goes, her hive goes as well. In fact, every year the queen honeybee leaves her nest in the quest to establish new colonies and, you guessed it, her colony always comes along for the ride. This process actually makes the hive super vulnerable since establishing a new dwelling rarely happens overnight. In terms of vulnerability, the hive specifically has to worry about their exposure to inclement weather. Researchers have observed during this transit, the colony gathers very closely together to form a cluster, often in a cone-looking shape. This cluster provides safety for the hive and it is the shape of the cluster during harsh weather that specifically intrigued Harvard University researchers.
What researchers noticed was that when the weather became worse, the cluster’s cone-shape would change in a unique way depending on what kind of weather stressor they were experiencing. Furthermore, what peaked researchers’ curiosity the most was how each individual bee knew what shape the cluster needed to be in to help survival in dangerous weather conditions. To figure this out, the team at Harvard observed honeybees they had gathered from the wild in a created apparatus that allowed the researchers to create various weather simulations often involving certain wind patterns.
Through closely watching the honeybees’ movements, researchers were able to hypothesize and eventually prove through computer simulations how each individual honeybee knew how to react in these unique weather situations. They concluded that when each individual bee would feel the sensation of being pulled away from the ones they were holding on to, the bee would then move to a place of higher stress. These findings suggest the cluster essentially becomes a super-organismal structure that can respond to various stressors by changing its morphology to better the chance of survival. The increased stress taken on by each individual honeybee in the cluster allows the entire colony to improve stability and thus survival. Through working together and making individual sacrifices, the colony prospers. A monumental concept that can be applied to all organisms on this planet, from other insects to human beings.