New work on bee swarms show that they are thinking outside the box

Honeybees communicate to each other through the waggle dance. For years it was assumed that the solid substrate
Postdoctoral fellow Sajesh Vijayan and bee

Postdoctoral fellow Sajesh Vijayan and bee

of honeycombs was needed to transmit the dancer’s vibrations to other bees in a hive. That was before postdoctoral fellow Sajesh Vijayan noticed something while conducting his PhD studies at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research. "I have worked with bees for a long while and one aspect of my thesis was looking at the collective behaviour of open nesting bees,” says Vijayan “so the honeybees we have here are usually kept in boxes but in the tropics we have a few species which form open nesting colonies and some aspects of their behaviour resembles that of swarms.”  It was at this time when he took note that these bees demonstrated “this very cool behaviour that they show to ward off predators called shimmering.”

This behaviour showed that bees were capable of sending messages to each other through an alternative medium. “I realized that an aspect about the communication on swarms is not that well studied," says Vijayan. It was at this time he was also looking for positions as a post-doc where he reached out to Dr. Natasha Mhatre and "during the presentation I was saying that this was something I was interested in looking at." Mhatre suggested that there was another way of investigating the problem which led to the collaboration of writing up a proposal for a fellowship to the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).

There is stiff competition for these annual awards and this year was no different. The HFSP received 603 letters of intent from 28 nations. The fellowships are worth on average, $200,000 USD in total. In early April of 2024 Vijayan found out he was awarded one of the 59 three-year fellowships.

As he outlined in his essay published in the HFSP awardee booklet, "Biophysical and mechanical explorations of bee swarms have usually focused on the principles that enable individual bees to form these large collectives. This study will be the first to explore honeybee swarms as a material that transmits vibrations and will provide a new direction to explore the honeybee swarm as an active material....Importantly, we will test how interconnected bees can provide a flexible, yet reliable medium for communication and decision making."