Gathered inside a small shed in the midst of a peaceful meadow, my colleagues and I are about to flip the switch to start a seemingly mundane procedure: using a motor to shake a wooden board. But underneath this board, we have a swarm of roughly 10,000 honeybees, clinging to each other in a single magnificent pulsing cone.
As we share one last look of excited concern, the swarm, literally a chunk of living material, starts to move right and left, jiggling like jelly.
Who in their right minds would shake a honeybee swarm? My colleagues and I are studying swarms to deepen our understanding of these essential pollinators, and also to see how we can leverage that understanding in the world of robotics materials.
Many bees create one swarm
The swarms in our study occur as part of the reproductive cycle of European honeybee colonies. When the number of bees exceeds available resources, usually in the spring or summer, a colony divides into two groups. One group, and a queen, fly away in search of a new permanent location while the rest of the bees remain behind.
During that effort, the relocating bees temporarily form a highly adaptable swarm that can hang from tree branches, roofs, fences or cars. While suspended, they have no nest to protect them from the elements. Huddling together allows them to minimize heat loss to the colder outside environment. They also need to adapt in real time to temperature variations, rain and wind – all of which could shatter the fragile protection they share as one unit.