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Honeybee decision-making ability rivals any department committee

>For more than 10 years, Seeley, University of California-Riverside entomologist Kirk Visscher (Cornell Ph.D. '85) and Ohio State University engineer Kevin Passino have been observing, videotaping, devising experiments and mathematically modeling honeybee swarms.

"The bees' method, which is a product of disagreement and contest rather than consensus or compromise, consistently yields excellent collective decisions," said Seeley.

When a hive gets too crowded, its queen and half the hive will swarm to a nearby tree and quietly wait while several hundred scouts go house hunting. To explore the decision-making process, the researchers conducted a series of experiments.

To study the waggle dancing for house hunting, the researchers:

  • labeled all 4,000 bees in a swarm and recorded the scouts reporting on their site visits. At first, no one site dominated the dancing, but toward the end of the 16-hour decision-making process, one site was advertised much more heavily and eventually became the chosen home.
  • offered bees both mediocre and superb nest sites. The better the site, the longer the bees waggle danced -- making 100 circuits for a first-rate site versus 12 for a mediocre one. The swarms almost always chose the excellent site.
To test whether the bees decide by quorum or consensus, the researchers:
  • offered swarms two first-rate sites on Appledore Island in the Gulf of Maine, site of Cornell's Shoals Marine Laboratory, both equidistant from the swarm. As soon as about 15 bees were seen at one site, the swarm would take off for it, even though some scouts were still dancing strongly for the other site.
  • offered five desirable nests and found that it took much longer for a quorum to develop at any one site, and takeoff took almost twice as long.
To study whether bees always choose the best site, the researchers offered swarms four small and one superior site in size. Although the superior site was never the fir
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Source:Cornell University News Service


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