bee biology

The shimmer response in honey bees

Nest of Apis dorsata by Simon Tonge CCO

The giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, wards off predators with the shimmer response. Each bee raises its abdomen in succession, causing the colony to dazzle its enemies..

No doubt, you have seen “the wave,” perhaps at a football game. Groups of fans in a stadium stand up briefly, wave their arms, yell, then sit back down. It happens quickly. No sooner does one group stand than the next one begins. In rapid succession, the action moves across the crowd, looking like a gigantic wave. 

Physicists tell us the wave is a metachronal rhythm. A metachronal wave is produced by sequential (not synchronized) actions of individual structures. In the stadium, the individual structures are humans. The wave appears to move around the stadium even though no individual person moves from his seat. Each fan simply stands up, then sits down.

From watching videos of games, researchers learned that it doesn’t take many spectators to start a wave, only twenty to thirty. Once it starts, the wave moves at about twenty seats per second.

Worms and millipedes also produce metachronal waves. Although a millipede travels with its legs, the visual wave moves faster than the actual millipede. Kind of creepy to watch. And lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, and such use metachronal swimming, meaning their appendages move in a sequential fashion.

Honey bees with a shimmer

The giant Asian honey bee, Apis dorsata, can also display a wave. But the giant honey bee colony performs waves at home, without any individual bee moving from its position on the wax comb. It is remarkably similar to the stadium wave.

Called a shimmer response, the entire colony makes waves as a form of defense. The University of Florida website has this to say about the shimmer response:

“Shimmering involves a display of waves that moves across the surface of the nest in a fraction of a second as the bees raise their abdomens in sequential order. These waves originate from individual bees which perceive a predator and raise their abdomen first, invoking a similar response from the surrounding bees. The visual display of shimmering is thought to intimidate potential threats such as predatory wasps, birds, and mammals.”

Nest combs are exposed

Nests of the giant honey bee hang from tree limbs. The bees live in the open where predators can easily spot them, so the colony needs clever ways of warding off enemies. Shimmering is just one of several weapons, but it’s probably the most spectacular. 

When bees on the comb surface detect danger, they start a wave. Like a sports wave, it apparently doesn’t take many bees to get it started. And once it’s in motion, the wave moves lightning fast, appearing to shimmer in the sunlight. The combs can reach three feet from end to end, so the wave easily intimidates the predators.

See the shimmer response here

You can see an Apis dorsata colony producing waves in this YouTube. I wish my bees did that!

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

7 Comments

  • That was way cool. Is Apis dorsata the only bee that does this? Maybe this explains washboarding–our bees are trying to shimmer and can’t get their act together.

    • Ha! You made me laugh. Apis dorsata is the only bee I know about that shimmers, but that’s not proof. Maybe someone will let us know if there are more.

  • Hi Rusty, I just returned from Thailand and saw the dorsata defensive shimmer several times. It’s as you described. I was privileged to travel with the University of Florida and a group of students guided throughout Thailand with three university entomologists. I wrote on the subject for ABJ, so if your followers are interested, they can read more about the journey in a future ABJ article. Thanks for the wonderful post.

    Bill

    • Bill,

      Wow, that sounds like a really fun trip; I can’t wait to read about it. Thank you for the heads-up!

    • Harold,

      People collect the combs full of honey and sell them in produce stands or street markets. Yes, the bees are very large and pack a good sting.

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