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Coordinating a group departure: who produces the piping signals on honeybee swarms?

Abstract

A swarm of honeybees provides a striking example of an animal group performing a synchronized departure for a new location; in this case, thousands of bees taking off at once to fly to a new home. However, the means by which this is achieved remain unclear. Shortly before takeoff, one hears a crescendo of a high-pitched mechanical signal—worker piping—so we explored the role of this signal in coordinating a swarm’s mass takeoff. Specifically, we examined whether exclusively nest site scouts produce the worker piping signal or whether it is produced in a relay or chain reaction fashion. We found no evidence that bees other than the scouts that have visited the swarm’s chosen nest site produce piping signals. This absence of relay communication in piping suggests that it is a signal that only primes swarms for takeoff and that the release of takeoff is triggered by some other signal or cue; perhaps the takeoff of bees on the swarm periphery as they reach flight temperature in response to piping.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Kevin Passino and Ariel Zimmerman for their assistance in marking the scout bees at the nest box. This study was supported by the US National Science Foundation (grant no. IBN02-10541 to TDS) and by the US Department of Agriculture (CSREES CA-R-ENT-6892 to PKV). The staff of the Shoals Marine Laboratory of Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire, as usual, made it a pleasure to work on Appledore Island.

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Correspondence to P. Kirk Visscher.

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Communicated by M. Beekman

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Visscher, P.K., Seeley, T.D. Coordinating a group departure: who produces the piping signals on honeybee swarms?. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 61, 1615–1621 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-007-0393-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-007-0393-3

Keywords

  • Apis mellifera
  • Decision-making
  • Group movement
  • Piping
  • Positive feedback