Zoologist George McGavin descended into a toxic cave with millions of bats, followed 60 million land crabs on their six-mile spawning trek to the sea, and allowed 40,000 bees to cover him head to toe, traveling the globe to uncover the mysteries behind swarm behavior for Animal Planet’s special “Ultimate Swarms,” premiering on Oct. 22.

McGavin, who holds a Ph.D. in entomology from Imperial College in London and taught at Oxford University for 25 years, launched a second career hosting natural history programs for the BBC. He told MNN about his experiences with swarming creatures, and what humans can learn from them.

MNN: What interested you in studying swarms?

McGavin: Swarms are some of the most impressive spectacles in the natural world. As a zoologist, I wanted to see what it felt like to be in the middle of swarming animals. 

How did it feel being bombarded by bats in the cave?

Hanging from a rope among millions of Mexican free-tailed bats was certainly one the oddest things I have ever done and it was very spectacular. Being in the eye of this particular swarm really gave me a good idea of the scale of events like this. Unfortunately, no one told me that the air would also be filled with bat urine.

Were you apprehensive about being covered in bees?

When bees swarm they are very nonaggressive, so I wasn’t really worried. A few dabs of queen pheromone were all that was needed to persuade the workers to cluster on me. Being covered in 40,000 bees is like wearing a thick sweater. I was stung just once but only because one the bees got under my shirt and became trapped in a fold of fabric.

Is colony collapse disorder related to swarm behavior? How, if so?

The loss of bees worldwide is due to many factors such as habitat and pesticides. Right now, it’s becoming clear that some insecticides that have become very widely used are having serious negative effects on bees by affecting their immune system and navigational abilities. Bees are the most important insects on Earth — our lives would be very different without them.

What can we learn from swarm behavior?

We learn that seemingly complex events and behaviors are governed by relatively simple rules. Understanding what make swarms occur is interesting in its own right but might also give us insights to help solve some of our own problems as humans.

What practical implications are there? Can you give examples where it has or would apply to people?

Traveling salesmen visit multiple locations in the most efficient way. This tactic is common to foraging ants and slime molds as well as distribution networks designed by humans.

What studies are going on in this area, and what do they hope to discover?

Researchers now have a good understanding of why and how pest species like locusts swarm. Other areas of interest concern transport and networks. 

What is the overall takeaway from 'Ultimate Swarms?'

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!

McGavin repels down into bat cave for Animal Planet special

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Inside the eye of the swarm
Bombarded by bats and covered in bees, George McGavin investigates 'Ultimate Swarms' for Animal Planet.