Speeding Up Social Waves. Propagation Mechanisms of Shimmering in Giant Honeybees
Shimmering is a defence behaviour in giant honeybees (Apis dorsata), whereby bees on the nest surface flip their abdomen upwards in a Mexican wave-like process. However, information spreads faster than can be ascribed to bucket bridging, which is the transfer of information from one individual to an adjacent one. We identified a saltatoric process that speeds up shimmering by the generation of daughter waves, which subsequently merge with the parental wave, producing a new wave front. Motion patterns of individual “focus” bees (n = 10,894) and their shimmering-active neighbours (n = 459,558) were measured with high-resolution video recording and stereoscopic imaging. Three types of shimmering-active surface bees were distinguished by their communication status, termed “agents”: “Bucket-bridging” agents comprised 74.98% of all agents, affected 88.17% of their neighbours, and transferred information at a velocity of v = 0.317±0.015 m/s. “Chain-tail” agents comprised 9.20% of the agents, were activated by 6.35% of their neighbours, but did not motivate others to participate in the wave. “Generator agents” comprised 15.82% of agents, showed abdominal flipping before the arrival of the main wave front, and initiated daughter waves. They affected 6.75% of their neighbourhood and speeded up the compound shimmering process compared to bucket bridging alone by 41.5% to v = 0.514±0.019 m/s. The main direction of shimmering was reinforced by 35.82% of agents, whereas the contribution of the complementing agents was fuzzy. We discuss that the saltatoric process could enable the bees to instantly recruit larger cohorts to participate in shimmering and to respond rapidly to changes in flight direction of preying wasps. A third, non-exclusive explanation is that at a distance of up to three metres from the nest the acceleration of shimmering could notably contribute to the startle response in mammals and birds.