Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Swarms Decoded

For this week’s column of Ask Your Weird Animal Questions, we’ve got the buzz on swarms.

What do you call a group of 420 whale sharks? National Geographic called it a swarm.—Cheryl Wrinkle

This question was prompted by a story on the biggest observed gathering of whale sharks, spotted off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2011. Whale sharks, typically loners, gather to feast on fish eggs.

Whale sharks feeding near Mujeres Island off Cancún, Mexico. Photograph by Mauricio Handler, National Geographic Creative

We’re glad for the question, because it has an exquisite answer. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a gathering of sharks is called “a shiver.”

“When I was a kid and used to play outside, if I’d scrape my knee, it would attract a cloud of gnats. What is it about blood that attracts them?”—Ken Towery via Facebook

Actually it’s not the blood in that open wound that draws those irritating swarms of gnats. It’s other body fluids, such as sweat, Phil Koehler, an entomologist at the University of Florida, said via email.

The insects are drawn to these fluids to get the proteins they need for egg production, he explained. Compounds such as ammonia, which is also found in decomposing blood, are another draw for gnats.

Eye gnats are a good example of a gnat that is attracted to eyes and open cuts,” Koehler said.

Gnats don’t bite, but they can transmit human and animal diseases, according to the University of Florida’s website.

Another gnat fact: Dryer sheets repel gnats, a popular gardening practice that was tested and verified by scientists at Kansas State University in 2010.

The researchers found that the sheets contained compounds, found naturally in some plants, that are toxic to gnats—and repel mosquitoes.

We used an author’s prerogative to ask: What do you do when confronted with 20 million angry bees?

Luckily this problem doesn’t come up often, but when a tractor trailer carrying 460 honeybee hives overturned on an Delaware highway in May, the state police came up with a plan involving local beekeepers, said police spokesperson Sgt. Paul Shavack.

Firefighters in full protective gear used water to “disperse and incapacitate” the swarms, he said. Water doesn’t kill bees but renders them unable to fly. (See “The Plight of the Honeybee.”)

Beekeeper Walt Broughton of Swarmbustin’ Honey in Chester County, Pennsylvania, arrived four hours into the cleanup and says beekeepers tried reuniting colonies, though the bees’ boxes were so scattered it was hard to determine where they’d come from.

Eric Mussen, extension apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said via email that “in the mass confusion following a truckload tipping over, there is too much commotion for the bees to find their own hives, so they fly around rather aimlessly.”

Amid the mayhem, guard bees, or soldier bees, are likely to sting, and the victim will give off an odor that encourages other bees to keep stinging. Shavack said the driver and passengers were hospitalized with minor injuries and “100 to 150 bee stings each.”

He added that many of the hives from the accident were salvaged.

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Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at