Larger but not louder: bigger honey bee colonies have quieter combs

  • Michael L Smith
  • Po-Cheng Chen
Original Article


Communication is impossible if the sender’s signal cannot overcome background noise to reach the receiver. This obstacle is present in all communication modalities, forcing organisms to develop diverse mechanisms to overcome noise. Honey bees will modify combs to improve signal efficiency of substrate-borne vibrations, but it is unknown whether, and if so, how, bees compensate for the largest potential source of noise: the bees themselves. The number of bees in a colony changes markedly throughout the year, but the size of the nest cavity does not, forcing workers into high densities on the combs. How, then, do bees communicate via substrate-borne vibrations on combs that are covered in bees? We used accelerometers to measure comb vibrations, while varying the number of workers on the comb. Surprisingly, comb vibrations decreased with increased worker number. Furthermore, inserting freshly killed bees to the comb demonstrated that it is not simply the bees’ collective mass that damps vibrations, but is probably their behavior. We propose that their posture damps vibrations, with each bee linking up to six neighboring cells with her legs. This collective damping reduces background noise and improves the landscape for communication. These results demonstrate how living systems, including superorganisms, can overcome physical obstacles with curiously simple and elegant solutions.

Significance statement

Background noise is a pervasive problem in communication. Honey bees must address this problem because thousands of individuals occupy and communicate within a single nest made of beeswax combs. While it is known that bees use beeswax comb vibrations to communicate, it is unknown how they overcome background noise when the combs become covered in bees. We show that comb vibrations decrease, not increase, as the number of bees on the comb increases. This unexpected result is not due to bees’ mass, but rather their interactions with the comb that damps vibrations. By reducing background vibrations, workers make the comb “quieter” and improve the substrate for communication. Therefore, we show that the communication landscape for sending signals within the superorganism is improved, not hindered, as the colony grows.


Substrate-borne vibration Signal propagation Honeycomb Superorganism Social insects Colony size 



We thank Bruce Land, Janis Dickinson, Cissy Ballen, Kern Reeve, and Tom Seeley for helpful discussion and critical feedback on the manuscript.


MLS is supported by a NSF-GRFP fellowship (DGE-1144153). This research was funded with a NSF-DDIG grant (1600775), an Andrew W. Mellon research grant, and a Centennial Pollinator Fellowship from the Garden Club of America (to MLS)

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

265_2017_2399_MOESM1_ESM.eps (1.2 mb)
ESM 1 Comb vibrations did not change with the mass of bees on the comb. Power spectrum density plots showed no difference as the number of dead bees on the focal comb increases (a black line, 0 dead bees on comb; red line, 400 dead bees; green line, 800 dead bees; orange line, 1200 dead bees; gray line, 1600 dead bees). Whereas comb vibrations decreased with the number of live bees, increasing the mass of the comb by adding dead bees did not reduce comb vibrations (b no effect of dead bees on root mean square amplitude; see Supplementary Figure for similar results in average power and maximum power). Xs in black denote the number of dead bees in the cells of the focal comb. Circles denote live bees, with colors indicating different colonies, and the black line shows the significant relationship between vibrations and live bees on the comb (EPS 1193 kb)
265_2017_2399_Fig5_ESM.jpg (102 kb)

High resolution (JPEG 208 kb)

265_2017_2399_MOESM2_ESM.docx (256 kb)
ESM 2 (DOCX 255 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.School of Electrical and Computer EngineeringCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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