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Field Notes
Peter Miller
Photograph by P. J. Miller
Peter Miller

Reporting on swarm behavior took National Geographic senior editor Peter Miller in a different direction than past articles. "Other stories I've written were more focused on a person or place," he says, "while this one was about a convergence of ideas. So many types of researchers are interested in collective behavior right now—from mathematicians to physicists to engineers to economists and biologists—that I could act like a bee buzzing from one fascinating interview to another. And since the experts were all eager to talk to people in other fields, they avoided using jargon, which allowed a nonspecialist like me to join the conversation."


During my visit with biologists Thomas Seeley and Kirk Visscher on Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire, I got to watch honeybees perform waggle dances. It was the first time I had seen this amazing behavior, and it reminded me a little of break dancing, with individual bees doing their moves in front of a crowd. The crowd, in this case, was a swarm of some 4,000 bees in need of a new home, and the dancers were scouts that had found potential nest sites. Each dancer was telling the other bees how to find the site they had visited through a kind of code. And they were very determined. In fact, they were insistent, as if trying to persuade the crowd. At times, I saw several bees dancing, competing for attention. The swarm was so preoccupied with its own situation that I was able to get very close—less than a foot (0.3 meter) away—to observe the bees without being noticed.


Although I'm fond of gulls in general, I didn't appreciate getting buzzed by great black-backed gulls and herring gulls during my stay on Appledore Island. Each summer, the big seabirds flock there to nest and hatch baby gulls. It also happens to be the busy season for scientists and students at the Shoals Marine Lab, who come to the island to do experiments. I learned to keep a close eye on the aggressive gulls whenever I walked from building to building, because they were very good at swooping in to peck at one's head. Researchers who spent a lot of time outdoors took to wearing hard hats to protect themselves. I couldn't really blame the gulls, though. The fuzzy hatchlings they were protecting were awfully cute.


The shuttle boat that carried me to Appledore Island also happened to be delivering several days' worth of food and other supplies. To transport the many jugs of oil, bags of rice, boxes of pasta, and cases of canned goods all the way up the steep hill from the dock to a waiting truck, every able-bodied person was recruited to form a fire-brigade line, of which I quickly became a member. Soon a steady stream of packages was being passed from one pair of hands to another. From a distance, I'm certain we looked very much like a line of ants moving food along a trail to the nest. Since I was writing an article about the virtues of collective behavior, that seemed entirely appropriate.