, Volume 64, Issue 6, pp 979-987

An oligarchy of nest-site scouts triggers a honeybee swarm’s departure from the hive

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Abstract

Animals that travel in groups must synchronize the timing of their departures to assure cohesion of the group. While most activities in large colonies of social insects have decentralized control, certain activities (e.g., colony migration) can have centralized control, with only a special subset of well-informed individuals making a decision that affects the entire colony. We recently discovered that a small minority of individuals in a honeybee colony—an oligarchy—decides when to trigger the departure of a swarm from its hive. The departure process begins with some bees producing the worker-piping signal (the primer for departure) and is followed by these bees producing the buzz-run signal (the releaser for departure). In this study, we determined the identity of these signalers. We found that a swarm’s nest-site scouts search for potential nest cavities prior to the departure of the swarm from its hive. Furthermore, we found that the predeparture nest-site scouts are the sole producers of the worker-piping signal and that they are the first producers of the buzz-run signal. The control of the departure of a honeybee swarm from its hive shows how a small minority of well-informed individuals in a large social insect colony can make important decisions about when a colony should take action.

Communicated by M. Beekman