how bees make collective decisions

By Jordan Kraemer, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 1 week ago.

New research details how bees use a form of competitive debate to make collective decisions:

Bees Form Better Democracy

When bees outgrow their hives, a few hundred scouts selected by the queen search for the perfect, new location for a swarm—a south-facing knothole that is smaller than 4.7 square inches, perched several yards above the ground and leads to a hollow in the tree that is at least 5 gallons in volume.

Scouts return to the waiting swarm and perform a waggle dance, vibrating their abdomens laterally while walking in figure eights, to report on what they found. The longer the waggle dance, the better the site. This prompts other scouts to visit the recommended site.

Scouts compete to attract uncommitted scouts to visit their sites. As time passes, coalitions form that prefer one site over another.

Instead of hashing it out endlessly, the group usually makes a decision with no more than 16 hours of dancing debate. As soon as 15 or more bees are at any one site, the scouts signal to the waiting bees in the swarm to warm up their flight muscles. Soon, the swarm lifts off toward its new home.

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

An open forum for opinions and a decentralized, competitive "debate" that filters out extreme or inaccurate opinions are the key features that make the bees' decision-making process effective, Seeley said.

Americans value democracy, or at least a representative version of it. Honeybees have evolved to rely on this quorum or majority method to collect independent opinions, something that differs from a one-man, one-vote democracy or an agonizing attempt to hammer out something everyone agrees upon.

It's a faster route to a swift and also smart decision, Seeley said.