When bees outgrow their hive, they swarm to find a new home. And just like humans, tired from moving, sometimes the swarm needs to rest. When this happens, the swarm puts itself into a somewhat vulnerable position, often perching on a tree branch, light post, or uhhh a Matchbox 20 concert. In these spots, the swarm can be subject to the elements, and very often the wind will bandy them about. But scientists have found that honeybees’ (Apis mellifera) extraordinary swarm intelligence qualities help make this experience safer for the entire colony.

In a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Physics, a team of researchers outlined how a bee swarm stays intact while it’s being shaken. The team, led by Orit Peleg, Ph.D., who studies the physics of living systems at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Jacob Peters, a Ph.D. student in Harvard University’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, found that a swarm flattens out from its usual cone shape when it gets shaken around. This happens, the researchers say, as a result of the emergent intelligence exhibited by a bee swarm, a form of collective behavior unique to eusocial animals like bees, ants, and naked mole rats.

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The taller cone shape (top) exhibits more shearing stress when shaken than the flatter shape (bottom).

To conduct this study, the researchers devised something like a honeybee torture device that shakes the swarm back and forth. Under these conditions, which are similar to those that the hive might experience while resting on a tree branch, they observed that the swarm’s typical tall, cone shape seemed to swing around an awful lot, exhibiting a physics property known as shear strain. As the swarm swung back and forth, it deformed with the force being exerted on it. But as the swarm continued to swing, the researchers saw something remarkable: Bees started climbing from the low-hanging part up to the solid base. This resulted in a wider, shorter structure that didn’t experience the same level of shear strain as the long, cone shape.

This seemingly obvious solution to a mechanical problem shows the collective genius of the bee hive mind.

No single bee knows what the whole swarm is doing. There are no foremen or engineers in a bee hive. But through each bee’s localized behaviors and interactions, the hive exhibits emergent behavior, a system-wide behavior that arises from the combined effect of all the individual actions of the bees. By tracking the bees on the outside of the swarm, the researchers saw that bees lower down on the cone, where the shear strain was the greatest, moved up to where the strain was lower, widening and lowering the base, moving the swarm’s center of mass closer to the base, eventually alleviating the whole swarm’s strain.

It’s hard to know if a bee knows why it does this, but the end result is that each bee’s behavior results in the group acting like a single, collective organism, much like the way neurons in our brains cooperate to form complex thoughts and behaviors.

We could learn a thing or two from these altruistic insects.