Honeybees in a colony select a new hive location via quorum.

Edit Hook

Humans aren’t the only ones who vote in important elections. A successful honeybee hive can contain tens of thousands of bees and may eventually become overcrowded due to limited space. When this happens, the colony splits in two and one group of bees leaves the hive in a swarm, clustering together outside until the group can find a new place to live. How do thousands of bees agree on a new location for a hive? The decision is important, because once agreed upon, the new colony will invest all of its energy into making the new location a success.

To find a location for a new hive, “scout” bees investigate possible sites. Then each scout returns to the swarm and communicates how promising the site it visited is by performing a “waggle dance.” In a waggle dance, a bee shakes or vibrates while walking forward in a wave pattern, then circles back and repeats the process. The faster a bee vibrates, the more promising it thinks the site it explored is. At the same time, the orientation of the bee’s movements conveys the newly proposed hive’s direction, and the time or linear distance over which the bee waggles in each cycle conveys the distance to the new hive. Based upon the relative vigor of each bee’s dance, other scouts locate and assess the more strongly recommended locations.

As soon as the number of bees at any given potential site reaches about 15, this group returns to the swarm, spreading through it to signal a final decision to relocate to that site. As a result, the swarm follows and sets up its hive in this chosen location.

Studying how honeybees and other species make decisions could provide insights into how humans could make better group decisions too.

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“Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what’s best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives.

“During the past decade, Seeley, Kirk Visscher of the University of California, Riverside, and others have been studying colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera) to see how they choose a new home. In late spring, when a hive gets too crowded, a colony normally splits, and the queen, some drones, and about half the workers fly a short distance to cluster on a tree branch. There the bees bivouac while a small percentage of them go searching for new real estate. Ideally, the site will be a cavity in a tree, well off the ground, with a small entrance hole facing south, and lots of room inside for brood and honey. Once a colony selects a site, it usually won’t move again, so it has to make the right choice.

“To find out how, Seeley’s team applied paint dots and tiny plastic tags to identify all 4,000 bees in each of several small swarms that they ferried to Appledore Island, home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. There, in a series of experiments, they released each swarm to locate nest boxes they’d placed on one side of the half-mile-long (one kilometer) island, which has plenty of shrubs but almost no trees or other places for nests.

“In one test they put out five nest boxes, four that weren’t quite big enough and one that was just about perfect. Scout bees soon appeared at all five. When they returned to the swarm, each performed a waggle dance urging other scouts to go have a look. (These dances include a code giving directions to a box’s location.) The strength of each dance reflected the scout’s enthusiasm for the site. After a while, dozens of scouts were dancing their little feet off, some for one site, some for another, and a small cloud of bees was buzzing around each box.

“The decisive moment didn’t take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.

“‘It was a race,’ Seeley says. ‘Which site was going to build up 15 bees first?’

“Scouts from the chosen box then spread through the swarm, signaling that it was time to move. Once all the bees had warmed up, they lifted off for their new home, which, to no one’s surprise, turned out to be the best of the five boxes.

“The bees’ rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices—so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.” (Miller 2007:4-5)

The Genius of Swarms

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Western HoneybeeApis melliferaSpecies

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