Honeybees beat the heat

Insects fan wings to manage deadly temperatures

Honeybees gather at the entrance of their new home after beekeepers transferred 25,000 honeybees to two hives installed on the lawn of the governor’s mansion in Olympia, Wash. Ted S. Warren, Associated Press


Honeybees have developed a way to survive sharp climate change by fanning their wings, cooling hives to keep bee larvae from baking, University of Colorado scientists found.

But honeybees adjusted their behavior to the extent necessary only when they were in groups of 10 or more — the insect equivalent of flash mobs relying on decentralized collection of information on temperature, the scientists concluded in a peer-reviewed study published this week in the British science journal Animal Behaviour.

“How do large, decentralized societies deal with traumatic changes in order to stay alive? We humans know our society could potentially be at risk as well. And we can respond as well,” said biologist Chelsea Cook, lead author of the study done at CU-Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Bees collect the most relevant information at the time and use that information to respond. Groups of 10 were better at responding because they had more individuals gathering more information and sharing that information,” Cook said.

Solo bees in the study failed to fan their wings as temperatures increased. Those bees cooked along with their eggs.

Previous research had established honeybees’ ability to fan their wings rapidly to try to maintain a stable temperature for their vulnerable larvae inside hives — ideally below 96.8 degrees. Otherwise, bee larvae cannot survive heat spikes.

While queen bees lay all the eggs in a colony, no authority figure exists controlling bee behavior. Scientists regard honeybee colonies as models for self-organizing and decentralized information-gathering aimed at survival.

CU researchers said they used hot plates to heat bees. They observed that, when temperatures spiked by 3.6 degrees within one minute, bees began fanning their wings with an intensity that cooled hives enough for larvae to live. A more gradual increase in temperature brought a lesser response.

Solo bees stayed dormant, and clusters of three bees were relatively slow to fan wings.

The scientists concluded that larger decentralized groups are better than individuals at assessing and reacting to abrupt changes. They said that’s because, in fast-changing environments, information quickly becomes outdated.

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, bfinley@denverpost.com or @finleybruce

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