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Biologist Thomas Seeley says animals other than bees use swarm intelligence—including, sometimes, people. (Peter Essick / Aurora Photos)

The Secret Life of Bees

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

“Ah, here she is. Pink has landed,” Seeley said.

Pink was exploring the island in search of a place where the honeybees could build a new hive. In the spring, if a honeybee colony has grown large enough, swarms of thousands of bees with a new queen will split off to look for a new nest. It takes a swarm anywhere from a few hours to a few days to inspect its surroundings before it finally flies to its newly chosen home. When Pink had left Seeley’s swarm earlier in the morning, she was not yet pink. Then she flew to a rocky cove on the northeast side of the island, where she discovered a wooden box and went inside. Visscher was sitting in front of it under a beach umbrella, with a paintbrush hanging from his lips. When the bee emerged from the box, Visscher flicked his wrist and caught her in a net the size of a ping-pong paddle. He laid the net on his thigh and dabbed a dot of pink paint on her back. With another flick, he let her go.

Visscher is famous in honeybee circles for his technique. Seeley calls it alien abduction for bees.

As the day passed, more scouts returned to the porch. Some were marked with pink dots. Others were blue, painted by Thomas Schlegel of the University of Bristol at a second box nearby. Some of the returning scouts started to dance. They climbed up toward the top of the swarm and wheeled around, waggling their rears. The angle at which they waggled and the time they spent dancing told the fellow bees where to find the two boxes. Some of the scouts that witnessed the dance flew away to investigate for themselves.

Then a blue bee did something strange. It began to make a tiny beeping sound, over and over again, and started head-butting pink bees. Seeley had first heard such beeps in the summer of 2009. He didn’t know why it was happening, or which bee was beeping. “All I knew was that it existed,” he said. Seeley and his colleagues have since discovered that the beeps come from the head-butting scouts. Now Seeley moved his microphone in close to them, calling out each time the bee beeped. It sounded like a mantra: “Blue...blue...blue...blue...blue.”

When you consider a swarm one bee at a time this way, it starts to look like a heap of chaos. Each insect wanders around, using its tiny brain to perceive nothing more than its immediate surroundings. Yet, somehow, thousands of honeybees can pool their knowledge and make a collective decision about where they will make a new home, even if that home may be miles away.

The decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds and colonies of termites display it as well. And in the field of swarm intelligence, Seeley is a towering figure. For 40 years he has come up with experiments that have allowed him to decipher the rules honeybees use for their collective decision-making. “No one has reached the level of experimentation and ingenuity of Tom Seeley,” says Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University.

Growing up in Ellis Hollow, in upstate New York, Seeley would bicycle around the farms near his house; one day he discovered a pair of white boxes. They each contained a hive. Seeley was seduced. He came back day after day to stare at the hives. He would look into the boxes and see bees coming in with loads of pollen on their legs. Other bees fanned their wings to keep the hives cool. Other bees acted as guards, pacing back and forth at the opening.

“If you lie in the grass in front of a hive, you see this immense traffic of bees zooming out of the hive and circling up and then shooting off in whatever direction they want to go,” said Seeley. “It’s like looking at a meteor shower.”

For his PhD at Harvard, Seeley took up a longstanding entomological question: How do honeybees choose their homes? He climbed into trees and poured cyanide into hives to kill the honeybees inside. He sawed down the trees and measured the cavities. Seeley found that bee hive hollows were very much alike. They were at least ten gallons in volume, sat at least 15 feet off the ground and had a narrow opening.

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