Size matters for bee 'superorganism' colonies

Honeybees using stored pollen to make combs Heather Bell
Scientists have studied the intricate details of how organisms interact in groups called biological collectives. The interactions between the members of a superorganism, such as bee colonies can benefit the whole colony.

It is difficult to understand how colonies react to changing environmental conditions, which are crucial for their survival. Researchers at the University of California San Diego have published a study that shows colony size is an important factor in honey bee survival. Researchers from UC San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences, Institute for Neural Computation and a Westphalian University of Applied Sciences researcher in Germany led the research. It was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Nov. 10.

Researchers collected data for several years at an UC San Diego apiary on the behavior of individual honey bees in large and small colonies. They focused their efforts on the communication signals bees use in order to transmit information. To let their colony mates know of a food source, honey bees perform a vigorous "waggle" dance. If the conditions for such food sources are not good or a mate is being threatened by a predator bees will emit "stop" signals. These include transmitting vibrations and giving head butts to let bees know that the source is no more viable.

Honey bees perform a vigorous "waggle dancing" to inform their hives mates about a food source that is beneficial to them. Credit: Nieh Lab, UC San Diego

They discovered that the key factor in determining the size of a colony is its size. Larger colonies that have established food stores and are more comfortable were less likely than smaller colonies to risk their lives by eating unreliable food. Smaller colonies that struggled to find enough food were more likely to ignore warning signs and take chances.

Heather Bell, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said that she created an artificial stop signal similar to natural stop signals. This caused waggle dancers briefly to pause. The artificial signal was then tested on waggle-dancers from different colonies. We measured the duration of waggle dances and found that small colonies were less likely to hear our artificial signal than large colonies.

These results showed that a strategy that works for keeping a small colony afloat is not always the best strategy for a large colony.

Honey bees emit "stop" signals when certain conditions are met, such as when food supplies become scarce or when a mate is in danger. Credit: Nieh Lab, UC San Diego

It all comes down to risk. James Nieh, senior author of the paper and professor in the Section of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, said that smaller colonies are more at risk because they require food. "Swarms that start new colonies are often in desperate situations and more likely to take risks when they're forced to."

Researchers found that superorganisms behave in a similar way to neural networks. Information is processed by networks made up of components. These components need to exchange vital information in order for the biological collective's survival. These behaviors can also be seen in human social groups, such as small businesses. They may not be as likely to take on new information that could change their course. Their findings could also have implications for designing artificial computing networks, according to the scientists. These networks, which are similar to bee colonies in that they must perform well and stay strong as they grow or shrink, need to be able to function properly.

A honeybee foraging on a plant Credit: Nieh Lab, UC San Diego

Nieh said that scientists can now see how bees adapt in the natural environment.

Nieh stated that "global climate change is changing many things, including when the flowers bloom." This study reveals how honey bees can adapt to these changes.

Learn more about the Climatic factors that lead to honey bee disease

Heather C. Bell and colleagues, Responsiveness changes as a function of honeybee colony size ( Apis mellifera), Journal of The Royal Society Interface (2021). Journal Information: Journal of the Royal Society Interface Heather C. Bell and colleagues, Responsiveness changes as a function of honeybee colony size ( Apis mellifera)(2021). DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0570