How Does A Honeybee Colony Think?

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As any kid with a mason jar can tell you, the honeybee isn’t the smartest animal on the planet. But oddly enough, a honeybee colony is actually pretty intelligent. Without the understanding of any single bee, the colony is constantly weighing decisions and making choices—like sending workers to the best place to collect food, or efficiently allocating jobs. You have to wonder, how does the honeybee group make decisions when the individuals can’t?

Although you might think the queen bee plays some role in this, she actually has no say in the decision-making. Instead, a honeybee colony "thinks" by combining and evaluating information from all the bees in a colony-wide discussion. In action, here’s how it works.

House Hunting

The most important decision a honeybee colony will ever make is choosing the best place to build a new hive—which a colony does when their old hive is destroyed, or when a new queen is born. If the honeybees pick a spot that’s too small, they might not be able to store enough honey to make it through the winter. And if they find somewhere too exposed, or with too big of an opening, predators could get in. “But over and over again, honeybees have shown that they almost always make the best decision,” says Dr. Gro Amdam, an entomologist at Arizona State University.

Amdam says that the temporarily-homeless honeybees will huddle together into a writhing pile—which can be up to several thousand bees thick—as they make their choice. While the rest of the colony waits, a few hundred bees will self-select as scouts, and scour the countryside for options. When a scout comes across something appealing, “like a cavity in an old tree,” says Amdam, “it will investigate how ‘good’ the site is by crawling around and evaluating things like the size of the entryway and the volume of the cavity.”

The scout then takes the information on the location and quality of the potential nesting site back to the swarm pile. If the scout was pretty impressed, “it will lobby for that site,” says Amdam, by dancing on top of the mound of living bees. The wiggles and steps of the scout’s dance convey the exact location of the site; how vigorously the scout dances indicates how good it thought the site was.

“A bee that was really impressed will be really geared up, and will dance for a very long time,” says Amdam, “and that enthusiastic dance will recruit more bees to come check out the site.” And after a newly recruited bee returns from evaluating the nesting site for itself, it also starts dancing as enthusiastically as it deems appropriate.

At any one time, there could be a dozen or more nesting sites that different groups of bees are vigorously dancing for. But because the bees dancing for the best sites are doing so for the longest time, explains Amdam, they have a better probability of getting others to pay attention. This forms a positive feedback loop, and slowly the better nesting options start to beat out the worse ones, continually gaining more and more bees to lobby for them.

It’s important to note that, even though the colony is slowly whittling away its options, at no point is any one bee is ever consciously comparing any two potential nesting sites. Nonetheless, the sites that start to dominate the swarm’s dance-discussion will almost invariably be the best choices, just as if some overseer had weighed them all against each other. And when a single site finally beats out all the rest—convincing a significant majority of the scout population to dance for it—the entire swarm will break from the dance-conversation, and will take off en masse to fly to their new housing choice.

Honeybees and Neurons

“And that’s exactly is what a honeybee colony’s thinking looks like,” says Keith Delaplane, another entomologist at the University of Georgia. "It looks like individual bees dancing, and other bees paying attention to those dances and slowly reinforcing or discouraging them through sheer numbers until a critical mass is reached.” Delaplane explains that this same type of behavior is also seen when the colony forages for food or water, or needs to come together to make other important decisions.

Interestingly enough, honeybee colonies aren’t the only place that we see this type of emergent behavior. “In our own brains, neurons are doing things very much like in the honeybee colony,” says Delaplane. Groups of discrete organisms or components (in the case of the brain, the neurons) combine together using set rules and feedback loops of information to accomplish tasks that the individuals couldn’t.

In some ways, the intelligence that arises from a colony of honeybees, “is like a window for us to peer inside our own minds and see how some of these processes work,” says Delaplane.