The buzz-run: how honeybees signal 'Time to go!'

Clare C. Rittschof, Thomas D. Seeley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


The explosive take-off of a honeybee swarm when it moves to its new home is a striking example of an animal group performing a synchronized departure for a new location. Prior work has shown that the nest-site scouts in a swarm prime the other bees for flight by producing piping signals that stimulate all the bees to warm up their wing muscles in preparation for flight, but how the bees are ultimately triggered to take flight remains a mystery. We explored the possibility that the buzz-run signal is the critical releaser of flight. Using slow-motion analyses of videorecordings, we made a detailed description of this signalling behaviour: a buzz-runner runs about the swarm cluster in great excitement, tracing out a crooked path, buzzing her wings in bursts, bulldozing between idle bees and periodically performing a conspicuous wiggling movement. It seems likely that the buzz-run signal is a ritualized form of a bee's take-off behaviour, with the wing buzzing greatly exaggerated and other behavioural elements (running, butting and wiggling) added to increase the signal's detectability. The immediate effect of the signal is to disperse and activate otherwise lethargic bees; the long-term effect is probably to stimulate the recipients to launch into flight. It turns out that the scout bees from the chosen nest site are responsible for producing both the piping signal to prime a swarm for take-off and the buzz-run signal to trigger the take-off. We suggest that these bees produce the signal that triggers take-off because they travel throughout the swarm cluster while piping and so are able to sense when the entire swarm is hot enough to take flight. The mechanisms mediating take-offs by honeybee swarms appear to present us with a rare instance where an action of a large social insect colony is controlled by a small set of individuals that actively monitor the global state of their colony and produce a signal triggering the colony's action in a timely way.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)189-197
Number of pages9
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the Hughes Summer Scholars Programme at Cornell and the National Science Foundation (grant IBN02-10541) for financial support, Barrett Klein for the drawing of a buzz-runner and Heather Mattila for constructive comments on the manuscript. This paper is based on the undergraduate honours thesis of C.C.R.


  • Apis mellifera
  • buzz-run
  • centralized control
  • group movement
  • honeybee
  • ritualization
  • swarm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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