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Synchronized Swarming

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Those rehearsals clearly paid off...

"Curse you Plankton, and your ability to join together to form a working human ear!"
Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob SquarePants

It's a common sight gag in humorous animation that fish, insects and other swarms have an amazing ability to coordinate movement into very exact shapes. (Especially impressive with fireflies in the night.)

This one is interesting because you can see a little bit of how it works. The idea of fish schooling-up to form words is pretty ridiculous, but because we are used to seeing schools of fish performing coordinated movements, we can suppress disbelief easily to enjoy it. Ditto, the flocking of birds, insects, etc.

This is kind of Truth in Television as real life swarms/schools/flocks can move with amazing coordination, and maintain a shape (usually a sphere or some other simple geometrical pattern) even when disturbed.

Common gags include:

  • Asking a swarm if they've seen something, and the swarm helpfully forms an arrow pointing to the direction it went.
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  • The target of a swarm (usually bees) is hiding, and when they can't find it they form a question mark for no apparent reason except for the benefit of the audience.

When the swarm takes a human shape and is made of invertebrates, it overlaps with The Worm That Walks. When it's bees that are swarming, it overlaps with Bee Afraid. Expect this to happen if someone disturbs or walks into the Hornet Hole.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Issue 7 of Blame! has the main character briefly interacting with a swarm of microorganisms, which assumes various simple forms — :) for "hello", O for "yes", X for "no", etc — to answer his queries. Justified, in that the swarm is actually controlled by an AI, in a highly futuristic world where this kind of trick is pretty common.
  • One of the Domo shorts on Nicktoons TV has the title character going ice-skating and following a school of fish swimming just beneath the ice.
  • Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt has a swarm of flies forming into a human hand... who gives Chuck a full-scale swatting (after he did so with one of them), throwing Chuck into a microwave, topped off with the swarm giving him the middle finger, complete with Written Sound Effect "FUCK!"
  • In SD Gundam Force, the Bagu-Bagu swarms do this.

    Asian Animation 
  • Motu Patlu: In "Motu Patlu Ka Fashion Show", John the Don provides Motu and Patlu with honey shirts so that he can release a bunch of bees on them. The bees form into several shapes, among them the shapes of a rocket, hands, and teeth, as they aim for and sting Motu and Patlu.
  • In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Mighty Little Defenders episode 5, Huiertai accidentally releases a swarm of bees from a beehive who form into such shapes as a hammer and a mace as they chase after him.

    Comic Strips 
  • One Foxtrot strip showed fireflies writing "HA HA HA HA" to insult Paige.
  • One Krazy Kat strip, where fireflies write "Illekk Krezy Ket" (it's for an election).

    Films — Animation 
  • Disney's Alice in Wonderland. While Alice is traveling through the Tulgey Wood she meets a group of mome raths, who form themselves into the shape of an arrow to lead her to a path.
  • The Emperor's New Groove has a swarm of bees do this while chasing Yzma back and forth.
  • In Finding Nemo, a school of moonfish (voiced by John Ratzenberger) does a series of impressions for Dory and becomes an arrow to give her and Marlin directions to Sydney. Lampshaded when they mention that they've practiced their impressions.
  • In the second Happy Heroes theatrical film, Happy Heroes 2: The Battle of Planet Qiyuan, Big M. is one of the participants of the Superman race and has his Life Meter slowly lowered by a bunch of bugs that are flying toward him in the shape of a syringe. Happy S. helps Big M. by punching the bugs away.
  • In The Princess and the Frog, the fireflies do this.
  • Rango has the Mole Clan do this while riding bats to prey on Rattlesnake Jake's fear of hawks.
  • Storks has a wolf pack that is capable of forming a suspension bridge, a boat and even a submarine, to the complete bafflement of the protagonists. However, when they try to form a plane they just plummet to the ground.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Ant-Man, Hank Pym controls ants to show Scott Lang just how much time he has to escape, with the ants forming numbers representing seconds.
  • In Jaws 2, Brody is alarmed by a shape in the water. It turns out to be a school of fish, and the shark is elsewhere. It is not clear to the audience exactly how similar the shape was to a shark.
  • In the third movie of The Matrix, the sentinel robots make a hand-like shape. Later, robots form a face and it talks to Neo. Probably Justified because there is just that much computing power guiding them.
  • In Nutty Professor II: The Klumps with Eddie Murphy, the professor proposes to his girlfriend by attracting fireflies into the words "Marry me?" using a synthesized firefly pheromone.

  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The Irish mascots at the Quidditch World Cup, a swarm of flying leprechauns that forms shapes to amuse the audience. They get pissed off when Bulgaria does well, eventually forming a hand making a "very rude gesture indeed."
  • There was the book Lorenzo by Bernard Waber, where a school of fish looked like a big fish and scared the sharks away. One of them was an odd-colored fish, so it had trouble staying away from predators until the other fish agreed to make it be the eye.
  • Ygramul the Many from The Neverending Story, a swarm of poisonous beetle-like bugs which forms a devilish face, a giant scorpion, a fist...
  • In The Power of Five, some of the Old Ones take the form of a swarm of flies that mould themselves into the shape of sword-wielding men on horseback. If anyone tries to strike the figures, the swarm just dissipates and re-forms, and one of the protagonists wonders whether when they attack their swords stay solid or separate and sting their victim to death.
  • Michael Crichton's Prey has ridiculous magic nanobot swarms. They do this, and it's mentioned that their AI was based on insect swarms. By the end of the book, they do it convincingly enough that a swarm can be mistaken for a human being.
  • The swarm of "snow gnats" in A Series of Unfortunate Events can take on forms like hoops and arrows when attacking people, whom they enjoy stinging for no good reason whatsoever.
  • Swimmy by Leo Lionni is similar. Some fish species in real life employ synchronized schooling like this.
  • Skitter of Worm is capable of doing this. She has put it to good use on several occasions, creating warning of impending danger and acting as a form of ad hoc command and control during crisis situations.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Mantrid's Drone Arms periodically did this in Lexx, forming a hammer, polygonal shapes, and the distinctive Cluster logo.
  • On an episode of Pushing Daisies, following a case where a woman says she was attacked by a "terrifying bee man", Ned speculates about being chased by a human-shaped swarm of bees. Turns out it was actually a person covered in bees.

  • In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Jenna is able to command the swarm that composes her new body to form various shapes. The default, of course, is a humanoid-esque form, but they're shown to react subconsciously to her thoughts: when she gets knocked over, for example, they form into a cartoony ball and splat against the ground.

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 
  • The arcade game 720° has a swarm of bees that chase the player if he hangs around the hub world for too long. The swarm takes on various threatening shapes including a hammer, a skull, an arrow, and a pair of scissors.
  • A recurring boss in Castlevania is the Giant Bat. Sometimes that giant bat is made of a lot of normal bats (such as Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow with Bat Company).
  • In Evil Genius, bees from the bee hive trap will form a question mark if no targets are in range. When they spot one, they form an exclamation point before attacking.
  • One of the enemies in Kirby: Squeak Squad is a swarm of small black insects called Uja that form themselves into various threatening shapes, such as Master Hand or a sword.
  • Logical Journey of the Zoombinis: The "Fleens!" puzzle requires you to bait a group of three specific Fleens off a tree branch which has a hive hanging from it. Their jumping off will eventually agitate the bees living inside into chasing off the other Fleens, taking the form of a pair of scissors, an arrow, or a storm cloud. In the remake Zoombinis, the swarm usually takes the shape of a vicious shark.
  • The Smorgs in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door combine like this to form a
  • The title screen of the Pikmin games feature the Pikmin forming the logo from a top-down view.
  • The Pokémon Wishiwashi is a scrawny weak fish that has an ability where it forms a school into a larger, much more powerful form resembling a submarine (to the point that it's considered The Dreaded). The school can even launch individual fish from its sides like torpedoes. The school will scatter if it takes too much damage.
  • Possibly the most bizarre playable character from TimeSplitters: Future Perfect is The Shoal, which is a school of fish swimming through the air around a larger whale wearing a tophat and smoking a pipe. The Shoal holds weapons using several small fish's bodies as hands.
  • The Wonderful 101 uses this, with full-on costumed superheroes, as the game's core gameplay mechanic. The primary power of the Wonderful 101 allows them to use this technique to form actual, functional, giant-sized weapons.
  • The swarms of bees in the Jungle Hut stage of Yoshi's Story form a large open palm to prevent you from passing by them.

    Web Original 
  • According to the Ninja of Ask a Ninja, this is a power of killer-killer bees, which are "killer bees that kill killer bees." One unfortunate victim of theirs tried to escape a swarm by diving into a pool of water. The killer-killer bees then formed into a bee submarine, dove into the water, and shot the man dead with a bee-torpedo.

    Western Animation 
  • If a character in an old MGM or Warner Bros. cartoon encounters a beehive, it will almost inevitably cause the swarm of bees to change into some familiar shape; arrows, anvils, boxing gloves, even a flyswatter for an ironic twist.
    Seen it happen to Tom and Sylvester the cats, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn etc.
  • The Barney Bear short Wild Honey has a swarm of bees forming a bomber plane (a "Bee-19") and dropping "bombs" on Barney. They also form a bow and arrow to sting him on the butt with.
  • The episode "Risky Beesness" from Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers has a swarm of bees forming not only flying hearts on behalf of the queen, but also stealing musical instruments while hypnotized by a thief playing a mind-controlling tune.
  • In the Donald Duck cartoon "Inferior Decorator", Donald gets into a feud with a bee. Toward the end of the cartoon, it calls on all its friends, which swarm out of the hive and form a question mark, as if to say "Yeah, what do you want?"
  • Dragons: Race to the Edge: From "When Darkness Falls", the Night Terrors are small dragons that fly as a swarm to form the shape of a bigger dragon in order to frighten their predators. For this, though, they need the presence of their leader (a white Night Terror that the Dragonriders name "Smidvarg") to command the flock and takes the position of the "eye" of the mock dragon.
  • One episode of Life with Louie had a scene in which Andy teaches a swarm of bees to spell his name. More conforming to the trope when you consider that he had to correct their spelling after the first attempt ("Andie").
  • Miraculous Ladybug: In the episode "Mr. Pigeon", the flocks of pigeons under the villain's control takes various threatening shapes, notably that of bomber planes.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In the episode "Fall Weather Friends", Rainbow Dash gets chased by a swarm of bees, and they form a "?!" when she manages to hide from them.
    • Also done by the Parasprite swarm in "Swarm Of The Century". They attack Rainbow Dash and form things like a beard and a bikini on her body before she shakes them off.
  • Very common sight in The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
  • One of The Pink Panther cartoons has the title character annoy a swarm of bees. While taking cover inside a house blocks them, the bees take a form of a drill, and create a hole in the door that they fly through.
  • The Popeye short "Insect to Injury" has Popeye trying to stop a swarm of termites from eating his new house; he traps them under a garbage can, but they escape when they form a car jack to lift it up.
  • Used all over the place in the Schoolhouse Rock! short "Busy Prepositions."
  • Rick and Morty: one of the Vindicators from the episode "Vindicators III: The Return of Worldender" is named "Million Ants" and he is literally millions of ants forming a human being.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • Lampshaded in "Plankton's Army": Plankton rallies his extended family to aid him in finally stealing the Krabby Patty secret formula.
      Mr. Krabs: Curse you Plankton, and your ability to join together to form a working human ear!
    • Also done by jellyfish in the episode "Jellyfish Jam".
  • In Tom and Jerry, the ants that invade Spike's picnic are quite organized, which helps them walk off with the entire food supply... and Spike's son.

    Real Life 
  • Starlings, sardines, mackerel, bees, siafu, robots.
  • Swarming in military strategy is the act of striking at an enemy force with mobile elements which hit and run, perpetually disrupting the enemy and destroying command and control by preventing the enemy from being able to react before the situation has changed. This is not a simple Zerg Rush of throwing troops at an objective in rapid waves, but an extremely complex, difficult to coordinate, and devastatingly effective plan to cause confusion and disorientation.
  • Marching Bands.

Alternative Title(s): Synchronised Swarming


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