Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 6, pp 979–987 | Cite as

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

  • Juliana RangelEmail author
  • Sean R. Griffin
  • Thomas D. Seeley
Original Paper


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.


Apis mellifera Buzz run Group decision making Honeybee Oligarchy Swarming Worker piping 



We are grateful to the staff of the Shoals Marine Laboratory of Cornell University on Appledore Island, Maine. Funding was provided to JR by the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (Award number DGE 0707428), the State University of New York Graduate Underrepresented Minority Fellowship Program, and the 2008 Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research of the American Philosophical Society. The study was also funded by a grant to SRG from the Hunter R Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship.


  1. Anderson C, McShea DW (2001) Individual versus social complexity, with particular reference to ant colonies. Biol Rev 76:211–237CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Boinski S, Campbell AF (1995) Use of trill vocalizations to coordinate troop movement among white-faced capuchins—a 2nd field-test. Behaviour 132:875–901CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Boinski S, Garber PA (2000) On the move: how and why animals travel in groups. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ILGoogle Scholar
  4. Buhl J, Sumpter DJ, Couzin ID, Hale JJ, Despland E, Miller ER, Simpson SJ (2006) From disorder to order in marching locusts. Science 312:1402–1406CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Camazine S, Deneubourg J-L, Franks NR, Sneyd J, Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E (2001) Self-organization in biological systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  6. Combs GF (1972) The engorgement of swarming worker honeybees. J Apic Res 11:121–128Google Scholar
  7. Conradt L, List C (2009) Group decisions in humans and animals: a survey. Phil Trans R Soc B 364:719–742CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Conradt L, Roper TJ (2003) Group decision-making in animals. Nature 421:155–158CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Conradt L, Roper TJ (2005) Consensus decision making in animals. Trends Ecol Evol 20:449–456CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Conradt L, Roper TJ (2007) Democracy in animals: the evolution of shared group decisions. Proc R Soc B 274:2317–2326CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Couzin ID (2006) Behavioral ecology: social organization in fission–fusion societies. Curr Biol 16:169–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dyer FC (2000) Group movement and individual cognition: lessons from social insects. In: Boinski S, Garber PA (eds) On the move: how and why animals travel in groups. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp 127–164Google Scholar
  13. Fell RD, Ambrose JT, Burgett M, De Jong D, Morse RA, Seeley TD (1977) The seasonal cycle of swarming in honeybees. J Apic Res 16:170–173Google Scholar
  14. Forsyth A (1981) Swarming activity of polybiine social wasps (Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Polybiini). Biotropica 13:93–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Franks NR, Pratt SC, Mallon EB, Britton NF, Sumpter DJT (2002) Information flow, opinion polling and collective intelligence in house-hunting social insects. Phil Trans R Soc B 357:1567–1583CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Gilley DC (1998) The identity of nest-site scouts in honey bee swarms. Apidologie 29:229–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Heinrich B (1981) The mechanisms and energetics of honeybee swarm temperature regulation. J Exp Biol 91:25–55Google Scholar
  18. Jeanne RL (2003) Social complexity in the Hymenoptera, with special attention to the wasps. In: Kikuchi T, Azuma N, Higashi S (eds) Genes, behaviors and evolution of social insects. Hokkaido University Press, Sapporo, pp 81–130Google Scholar
  19. Latty T, Duncan M, Beekman M (2009) High bee traffic disrupts transfer of directional information in flying honeybee swarms. Anim Behav 78:117–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lindauer M (1955) Schwarmbienen auf Wohnungssuche. Z Vgl Physiol 37:263–324CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mallon EB, Pratt SC, Franks NR (2001) Individual and aggregated decision making during nest site selection by the ant Leptothorax albipennis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 50:352–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Martin P (1963) Die Steuerung der Volksteilung beim Schwärmen der Bienen: zugleich ein Beitrag zum Problem der Wanderschwärme. Insect Soc 10:13–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Pratt SC (2005) Behavioural mechanisms of collective nest-site choice by the ant Temnothorax curvispinosis. Insect Soc 52:383–392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Pratt SC, Mallon EB, Sumpter DJT, Franks NR (2002) Quorum sensing, recruitment, and collective decision-making during colony emigration by the ant Leptothorax albipennis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 52:117–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Prins HHT (1996) Ecology and behaviour of the African buffalo. Chapman & Hall, London, UKGoogle Scholar
  26. Ramseyer A, Thierry B, Boissy A, Dumont B (2009) Decision-making processes in group departures of cattle. Ethology 115:948–957CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Rangel J, Seeley TD (2008) The signals initiating the mass exodus of a honey bee swarm from its nest. Anim Behav 76:1943–1952CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Reebs SG (2000) Can a minority of informed leaders determine the foraging movements of a fish shoal? Anim Behav 59:403–409CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Rittschof CC, Seeley TD (2008) The buzz-run: how honeybees signal ‘Time to go!’. Anim Behav 75:189–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Schultz KM, Passino KM, Seeley TD (2008) The mechanisms of flight guidance in honey bee swarms: subtle guides or streaker bees? J Exp Biol 211:3287–3295CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Seeley TD (1995) The wisdom of the hive: the social physiology of honey bee colonies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  32. Seeley TD, Morse RA (1978) Nest site selection by the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Insect Soc 25:323–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Seeley TD, Tautz J (2001) Worker piping in honey bee swarms and its role in preparing for liftoff. J Comp Physiol A 187:667–676CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Seeley TD, Visscher PK (2003) Choosing a home: how the scouts in a honey bee swarm perceive the completion of their group decision making. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 54:511–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Seeley TD, Visscher PK (2004) Group decision making in nest-site selection by honey bees. Apidologie 35:101–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Seeley TD, Morse RA, Visscher PK (1979) The natural history of the flight of honey bee swarms. Psyche 86:103–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Seeley TD, Kleinhenz M, Bujok B, Tautz J (2003) Thorough warm-up before take-off in honey bee swarms. Naturwissenschaften 90:256–260CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Seeley TD, Visscher PK, Passino KM (2006) Group decision making in honey bee swarms. American Scientist 94:220–229Google Scholar
  39. Simpson SJ, Sword GA, Lorch PD, Couzin ID (2006) Cannibal crickets on a forced march for protein and salt. Proc Natl Acad Sci 103:4152–4156CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Sumpter DJT (2006) The principles of collective animal behaviour. Phil Trans R Soc B 361:5–22CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Visscher PK (2007) Group decision making in nest-site selection among social insects. Ann Rev Entomol 52:255–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Visscher PK, Seeley TD (2007) Coordinating a group departure: who produces the piping signals on honeybee swarms? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 61:1615–1621CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. von Frisch K (1967) The dance language and orientation of bees. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  44. Wilson EO (1971) The insect societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  45. Winston ML (1987) The biology of the honey bee. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juliana Rangel
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sean R. Griffin
    • 1
  • Thomas D. Seeley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

Personalised recommendations