Individuals working together as one. (Photo: Orit Peleg and Jacob Peters)

The living world is full of natural engineers, and honeybees are among the world’s greatest builders. Even when they are outside of their hives, honeybees form adaptable structures that can inspire the engineers of the future.

When a colony of honeybees grows too large to provide for its members, a swarm breaks off. In an op-ed for The Conversation, SFI External Professor Orit Peleg (CU Boulder) and her colleagues describe research that takes a close look at the structures that break-off swarms adopt to protect themselves from the elements.

The researchers performed an experiment in which they did something most of us would never do: they shook the swarm. Peleg and her colleagues found that when they shook vertically, the bees retained their formation until a critical force was reached, but when shaken horizontally, the swarm broke apart and reformed itself. The pair bonds that individual bees formed to hold the group together were more vulnerable to one kind of disruption than the other, but the swarm adapted readily to both disruptions. In effect, as a group, the bees became a responsive, adaptable material.

For Peleg, this adaptable material has implications that extend far beyond insect biology. The honeybees might help engineers envision artificially intelligent structures that adapt to environmental change. The possibilities, Peleg suggests, are extensive: “I can envision shelters,” she writes “that deploy rapidly in the face of natural disasters like hurricanes, or construction materials that can sense an earthquake’s vibrations and respond in the same way that these swarms react to a branch in wind.”

Read the op-ed in The Conversation (January 22, 2020)