A CT scan reveals the inner, complex world of bee swarms

Researchers discovered unique facts about bees from taking detailed scans of their swarms.
Brittney Grimes
Close up image of bees.
Close up image of bees.

Mike Black/iStock 

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder) used a CT scan to see what goes on in the world of honeybees, specifically within their swarms.

The CT scan, also known as an X-ray computed tomography, revealed a deep look into the lives of the insects. The research team noticed that the bees didn’t randomly clump together, but rather they had order, despite having brains the size of grains of sand.

Strength of the bees

The bees formed dome-shaped structures following a complicated mathematical rule, what the team called a scaling law. The law states that each layer supports weight that equals around its own weight to the one-and-a-half power.

“What this scaling law means is that each layer winds up using the same amount of its available strength as every other layer,” said Olga Shishkov, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Peleg Lab at BioFrontiers. This principle explains the weight distribution amongst the bees. Researchers also learned that each bee could carry the equivalent weight of 35 other bees at once.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The swarm

The bees within the swarm work together to form a congruent structure. “A honeybee swarm is a cluster made up of a queen bee and thousands of workers that hangs outside for hours to days while the workers scout for hives. Swarming is a precarious step in the life of a honeybee colony,” the study mentioned.

“If the queen or too many of the worker bees do not make it to their new hive, the entire colony will be lost. Bees attach to one another to support the weight of the entire swarm and keep the colony cohesive,” it continued. Therefore, the queen bee and worker bees have to work together to survive.

The study setup

For the study, researchers used a different number of worker bees ranging from 3,725 to 9,700 bees and one caged queen bee. They analyzed the data from 11 swarms, which provided 57 CT scans total. There was indoor lighting used and while the caged queen bee was fixed to the center of the attachment in the study, the worker bees formed a swarm around her.

A CT scan reveals the inner, complex world of bee swarms
Diagram of the CT scan setup.

The mass of each swarm was measured before taking the CT scans and the number of bees in each swarm were calculated by dividing the mass of the entire swarm by the mass of each bee.

The structures that the bees were on would hang upside down and the team rotated the swarms in front of a CT scan machine.

The outcome

Researchers were able to successfully scan the swarms of bees with such precision that they could pick out individual bees on the scan. The images allowed the team to comprehend how the bees created what they called, “superorganisms”. Also, they noticed the ways bees can stay warm or cool in the cluster.

The team noticed that when the beehive became too crowded, the queen bee flew away to find another place to call home. Often, the queen bee brought part of her swarm with her, thousands of worker bees, to keep her safe.

The insects are also extremely flexible. When researchers shook the hive to mimic a gust of wind, the bees would flatten themselves into a pancake-like shape to remain stable and immovable. “Bees somehow know how to arrange themselves in order to maintain their mechanical stability,” said Orit Peleg, senior author of the study and assistant professor at the BioFrontiers Institute and Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder.

The future

The scientists hope to look more into the bee swarms and discover unique ways that the scaling law can be applied to technology and structures. “The existence of this scaling law hints that there might be general principles of organization for structures like these that we don't know about yet,” said Kaushik Jayaram, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Researchers want to use the analysis of bee swarms to one day create buildings that are more durable, or swarms of robots that can act like the insects for research and other innovations.

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