How bees play telephone to form a swarm

Honeybees use pheromones and flapping wings to tell each other where to find the queen

A new comic series from Science News for Students

JoAnna Wendel

Title panel: There are two honeybees sitting on flowers on either side of the picture. They are holding smartphones. there is grass below them. Between the bees is text that reads "Bee Telephone Written by  Sarah Zielinski  Illustrated by JoAnna Wendel"
Kid: Wow! That’s super interesting…but can you help me get rid of them? My mom needs to drive us home.  Orit Peleg: Why, yes I can! I’m not just a biologist; I’m an interdisciplinary biologist. I have lots of talents. Let me just put in a call to my colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder. But are you sure your mom doesn’t want to see this first? It’s kind of special.
My colleagues and I were studying bee swarms in the lab. And we noticed that the bees use pheromones ― chemical communication ― to talk to one another. That isn’t unusual. Lots of animals, including us, use pheromones.  Queen bee: Come to me, my hive!  The queen sends out pheromones to tell her workers where to find her. But these chemicals dissipate quickly. So we wondered, how would a worker bee far away know where its queen was?
Panel 3: We built an arena in the lab. At one corner, we placed the queen. At the other, workers. Worker bees: Without our queen, our hive will fall apart. Where is she? Queen bee: Here I am!
Panel 4: Then we watched as the worker bees swarmed around their queen. We used artificial intelligence to track the insects and their behavior. Worker bee: Now we can all get cozy together. Queen bee: I missed you all.
Panel 5: This relies on a behavior called “scenting.” It starts when a worker bee gets close enough to smell the queen’s pheromone. Then the worker produces its own pheromone. The bee directs the chemical by lifting its abdomen and flapping its wings.  Worker bee: This way, friends! The queen is just up ahead.
Panel 6: Then, as more bees detect that pheromone, many also halt and start producing the chemical. Eventually, this big game of telephone produces a map to the queen. And the other workers can follow that map to become a swarm.  Queen bee: You’re almost here!
Panel 7: Kid: Wow! That’s super interesting…but can you help me get rid of them? My mom needs to drive us home. Orit Peleg: Why, yes I can! I’m not just a biologist; I’m an interdisciplinary biologist. I have lots of talents. Let me just put in a call to my colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder. But are you sure your mom doesn’t want to see this first? It’s kind of special.
JoAnna Wendel

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has two cats, Oscar and Saffir.

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer and cartoonist in Portland, Ore. She loves to make comics about all types of science, but she especially loves drawing planets, invertebrates and sea creatures. When she's not drawing, JoAnna is probably reading, hiking or hanging out with her cat, Pancake.

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