Endothermic heat production is a crucial evolutionary adaptation that is, amongst others, responsible for the great success of honeybees. Endothermy ensures the survival of the colonies in harsh environments and is involved in the maintenance of the brood nest temperature, which is fundamental for the breeding and further development of healthy individuals and thus the foraging and reproduction success of this species. Freshly emerged honeybees are not yet able to produce heat endothermically and thus developed behavioural patterns that result in the location of these young bees within the warm brood nest where they further develop and perform tasks for the colony. Previous studies showed that groups of young ectothermic honeybees exposed to a temperature gradient collectively aggregate at the optimal place with their preferred temperature of 36°C but most single bees do not locate themselves at the optimum.
In this work we further investigate the behavioural patterns that lead to this collective thermotaxis. We tested single and groups of young bees concerning their ability to discriminate a local from a global temperature optimum and, for groups of bees, analysed the speed of the decision making process as well as density dependent effects by varying group sizes. We found that the majority of tested single bees do not locate themselves at the optimum whereas sufficiently large groups of bees are able to collectively discriminate a suboptimal temperature spot and aggregate at 36°C. Larger groups decide faster than smaller ones, but in larger groups a higher percentage of bees may switch to the sub-optimum due to crowding effects. We show that the collective thermotaxis is a simple but well evolved, scalable and robust social behaviour that enables the collective of bees to perform complex tasks despite the limited abilities of each individual.