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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

The problem of social choice has challenged social philosophers and political scientists for centuries. The fundamental decision-making dilemma for groups is how to turn individual preferences for different outcomes into a single choice for the group as a whole. This problem has been studied mainly with respect to human groups, which have developed a variety of voting procedures to single out one option from a list of possible choices: majority rule, plurality wins, various weighted-voting systems and others. Social choice in animal groups is less well studied, although examples are abundant: A baboon troop must decide where to go following a rest period; an ant colony decides whether or not to attack a neighboring colony.

Figure 1. Bivouacked on a tree branch...Click to Enlarge Image

A striking example of decision making by an animal group is the choice of a nesting site by a swarm of up to 10,000 honey bees. This process involves several hundred bees from the swarm working together to find a dozen or more candidate nesting cavities in trees and then selecting the best one of these options for their new home. We've been investigating this process for the past decade using a variety of observational, experimental and mathematical-modeling studies. This work has revealed a set of behavioral mechanisms in a swarm that consistently yields excellent collective decisions. It has become clear that this group intelligence is a product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise, among different groups of bees representing different alternatives in the decision-making task. We have found that evolution has supplied an intriguing answer to the question of how to make a group function as an effective decision-making unit.

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