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Carpenter Bees: 'Dogfighting' Tactics Shed Light on Aerial Combat In Flying Animals

Jan 07, 2016 11:07 AM EST
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Eastern carpenter bees put a lot of hard work into building their complex nests and will do anything to protect their hives and colony members. Researcher Dr. Brandon Jackson of Longwood University spent some time observing the bees' defensive "dogfighting" behaviors and believes his findings shed light on how flying animals engage in aerial combat.  

When defending their hives, these purplish-black bees (Xylocopa virginica) occasionally engage with birds or small mammals, but most combat involves other carpenter bees, who often lay eggs in another's nest. When this happens, Jackson discovered the fights can get pretty intense: If a defender bee cannot chase off a freeloader on its own, the defender will drag the bee to the ground where back-up quickly swarms in to help kill the bee, according to a news release.

To learn more about these "dogfighting" techniques, Jackson set up his GoPro camera to record these brawling bees outside his house in Charlottesville, Va. The camera captured bees within a flight zone about the size of a single-car garage, which Jackson knew was frequented by the bees.

"We're really getting the biomechanics and performance in totally natural settings, which hasn't been done much before, especially in flying animals like bees," Jackson said in a statement.

With a team of students, Jackson has analyzed nearly 80 minutes of video, from which he has deciphered roughly 600 flight paths. Based on previous studies of birds chasing each other in flight, researchers hypothesized the frontline fighters would have the upper hand in being able to fly faster and turn sharper.   

"However, a good number of carpenter bee chases occurred at very low speed," Jackson said.  In other words, researchers found bees do not use the "usual" combat style found among flying animals.

"It's not top speed that wins every time. Clearly something else is going on," he explained, adding the insects may instead be performing a sort of aerial fencing match.

For example, researchers observed two bees engaging in a delicate sparring-like match as they hover, survey, and make very subtle movements.  Eventually, the intruder would either leave the fight or make a break for the nest to lay its eggs in the tunnels. As a result, this would force the defender to wither surrender or move to intercept their path to the nest.

Although further research is required to fully understand these "dogfighting" behaviors, Jackson's tools provide the ground work for future studies. He recently presented his findings at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Portland, Oregon.

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