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Group Decision Making in Honey Bee Swarms

When 10,000 bees go house hunting, how do they cooperatively choose their new nesting site?

P. Kirk Visscher, Thomas Seeley, Kevin Passino

Figure 11. Scout bees tune...Click to Enlarge Image

One of the turning points in the life of a honey bee colony is when  a queen bee bequeaths her hive to her daughter queen, takes half the worker bees and goes off to start a new nest. The departing bees' process of deciding on a new home seems to take some time. With careful research, Thomas Seeley and his colleagues have uncovered how a swarm comes to a decision. It's not a democracy, exactly, but rather a matter of reaching a threshold as bees endorse a particular site using their "waggle dancing." For a group of about 10,000 bees, several hundred scout out nest sites, but it takes the build-up of just 10 to 20 bees at a site before the swarm starts to move to that location. Through experiments and mathematical modeling, Seeley's group has shown that the bees' method is best at balancing the need to find a home quickly and choosing an ideal nesting site.

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