Peters, Jacob M.; Orit Peleg and L. Mahadevan

During reproductive swarming, honeybees form clusters of more than 10,000 bees that hang from structures in the environment (e.g., tree branches) and are exposed to diurnal variations in ambient temperature for up to one week during the search for a new nesting site. Swarm clusters collectively modulate their morphology in response to these variations (i.e., expanding/contracting in response to heating/cooling) to maintain their internal temperature within a tolerable range and to avoid exhausting their honey stores prematurely. To understand the spatiotemporal aspects of thermoregulatory morphing, we measured the change in size and shape of swarm clusters over time and the internal temperature profiles in response to dynamic temperature ramp perturbations. We found that swarm clusters can achieve a twofold increase/decrease their volume/density when heated from 15°C to 30°C, but they do not reach an equilibrium size or shape when held at 30°C for 5 hours, long after the core temperature of the cluster has stabilized. Furthermore, the changes in cluster shape and size are hysteretic, contracting in response to cooling faster than expanding in response to heating. Although the contact diameter of the cluster increased continuously when the swarm is heated, the change in length of the swarm (base to tip) over time is non-monotonic. Consequently, the aspect ratio of the swarm fluctuated continuously even when held at a constant temperature. Taken together, our results quantify the hysteretic and anisotropic morphological responses of swarm clusters to ambient temperature variations while suggesting that both mechanical constraints and heat transfer govern the thermoregulatory morphing dynamics of swarm clusters.