Gerald Kastberger’s obsession with giant honeybees began in 1990, when he saw them nesting in an Indian fig tree. Unlike the more familiar western honeybee, which nest in holes or artificial hives, the two-centimeter-long giants live in the open. Each colony builds a single, meter-wide comb that hangs from branches, cliffs, or buildings. Tens of thousands of workers swarm over the comb, creating a living curtain of bees, up to seven individuals thick.
This open-nesting lifestyle comes with two big problems. First, the bees are vulnerable to predators. Wasps and hornets can swoop in and pluck workers from the edge of the curtain. Second, they have a heating problem. Even though their nests are exposed to the sun and the vagaries of the elements, the workers have to carefully control the interior temperatures to stop their larvae from either baking or freezing.
The bees clearly have solutions to these problems, because they’ve been around for at least 12 million years. And over the past 26 years, Kastberger has discovered what they do.
He noticed that whenever a hornet gets within 50 centimeters of a giant honeybee nest, the bees shimmer. Individual workers raise their abdomens by 90 degrees and shake them in unison. When one starts, its neighbors continue, and a mesmerizingly beautiful wave of booty-shaking bees ripples across the comb. “It’s analogous to the waves in football stadiums,” says Kastberger. True, although it’s more of a twerk than a wave.
After a few shimmers, the bees release a chemical called Nasonov pheromone, which stops their comrades from breaking ranks. Giant honeybees are naturally aggressive, so there’s always a chance that the workers would fly off to try and engage the enemy on their own. That would be a mistake: even a giant bee is no match for a hornet in the air. But a team that stands its ground is almost invincible. Their waves seem to befuddle and distract the incoming hornets, forcing them to veer off course and retreat. Kastberger filmed more than 450 attacks, and not a single one was successful.