Vasculature of the hive: heat dissipation in the honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive

Abstract

Eusocial insects are distinguished by their elaborate cooperative behavior and are sometimes defined as superorganisms. As a nest-bound superorganism, individuals work together to maintain favorable nest conditions. Residing in temperate environments, honey bees (Apis mellifera) work especially hard to maintain brood comb temperature between 32 and 36 °C. Heat shielding is a social homeostatic mechanism employed to combat local heat stress. Workers press the ventral side of their bodies against heated surfaces, absorb heat, and thus protect developing brood. While the absorption of heat has been characterized, the dissipation of absorbed heat has not. Our study characterized both how effectively worker bees absorb heat during heat shielding, and where worker bees dissipate absorbed heat. Hives were experimentally heated for 15 min during which internal temperatures and heat shielder counts were taken. Once the heat source was removed, hives were photographed with a thermal imaging camera for 15 min. Thermal images allowed for spatial tracking of heat flow as cooling occurred. Data indicate that honey bee workers collectively minimize heat gain during heating and accelerate heat loss during cooling. Thermal images show that heated areas temporarily increase in size in all directions and then rapidly decrease to safe levels (<37 °C). As such, heat shielding is reminiscent of bioheat removal via the cardiovascular system of mammals.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Anne A. Madden, Kelsey Graham, Tyler Corey, and Georgiana Burruss for providing comments on previous drafts. This research was supported by the Tufts University Biology Department and the Tufts University National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (DBI 263030).

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Correspondence to Philip T. Starks.

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Rachael E. Bonoan and Rhyan R. Goldman contributed equally to this work.

Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Bonoan, R.E., Goldman, R.R., Wong, P.Y. et al. Vasculature of the hive: heat dissipation in the honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive. Naturwissenschaften 101, 459–465 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-014-1174-2

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Keywords

  • Colonies
  • Group behavior
  • Heat transfer
  • Temperature dynamics