The Secret Life of Bees

The world’s leading expert on bee behavior discovers the secrets of decision-making in a swarm

Biologist Thomas Seeley says animals other than bees use swarm intelligence—including, sometimes, people. (Peter Essick / Aurora Photos)
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And once the scouts reach a quorum of 15 bees all dancing for the same location, they start to head-butt one another, silencing their own side so that the swarm can prepare to fly.

One of the things Seeley has been thinking about during his vigils with his swarms is how much they’re like our own minds. “I think of a swarm as an exposed brain that hangs quietly from a tree branch,” Seeley said.

A swarm and a brain both make decisions. Our brains have to make quick judgments about a flood of neural signals from our eyes, for example, figuring out what we’re seeing and deciding how to respond.

Both swarms and brains make their decisions democratically. Despite her royal title, a honeybee queen does not make decisions for the hive. The hive makes decisions for her. In our brain, no single neuron takes in all the information from our senses and makes a decision. Millions make a collective choice.

“Bees are to hives as neurons are to brains,” says Jeffrey Schall, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Neurons use some of the same tricks honeybees use to come to decisions. A single visual neuron is like a single scout. It reports about a tiny patch of what we see, just as a scout dances for a single site. Different neurons may give us conflicting ideas about what we’re actually seeing, but we have to quickly choose between the alternatives. That red blob seen from the corner of your eye may be a stop sign, or it may be a car barreling down the street.

To make the right choice, our neurons hold a competition, and different coalitions recruit more neurons to their interpretation of reality, much as scouts recruit more bees.

Our brains need a way to avoid stalemates. Like the decaying dances of honeybees, a coalition starts to get weaker if it doesn’t get a continual supply of signals from the eyes. As a result, it doesn’t get locked early into the wrong choice. Just as honeybees use a quorum, our brain waits until one coalition hits a threshold and then makes a decision.

Seeley thinks that this convergence between bees and brains can teach people a lot about how to make decisions in groups. “Living in groups, there’s a wisdom to finding a way for members to make better decisions collectively than as individuals,” he said.

Recently Seeley was talking at the Naval War College. He explained the radical differences in how swarms and captain-dominated ships make decisions. “They realize that information is very distributed across the ship,” Seeley said. “Does it make sense to have power so concentrated? Sometimes you need a fast decision, but there’s a trade-off between fast versus accurate.”

In his experience, Seeley says, New England town hall meetings are the closest human grouping to honeybee swarms. “There are some differences, but there are also some fundamental similarities,” he said. Like scouts, individual citizens are allowed to share different ideas with the entire meeting. Other citizens can judge for themselves the merit of their ideas, and they can speak up themselves. “When it’s working properly, good ideas rise up and bad ones sink down,” says Seeley.

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