8th December 2011
Model of bee decision-making featured in Science
Researchers from the Department of Computer Science have a major paper published today in Science, one of the world's most respected scientific journals.
Our researchers have been working with experimental biologists to study how homeless honeybee colonies collectively choose a new nest site to move into. The biologists from the Universities of Cornell, California Riverside and Bristol set up two nest boxes for a homeless honeybee swarm to choose between and recorded how bees that visited each box interacted with bees from the rival box. They found that bees that visited one site, which were marked with pink paint, tended to inhibit the dances of bees advertising the other site, which were marked with yellow paint, and vice versa. Tom Seeley of Cornell University, author of the best-selling book 'Honeybee Democracy' said "We were amazed to discover that the bees from one nest box would seek out bees performing waggle dances for the other nest box and butt against them with their heads while simultaneously producing shrill beeping sounds. We call this rough treatment the 'stop signal' because most bees that receive this signal will cease dancing a few seconds later."
Researchers at Sheffield then constructed a mathematical model of the bees' decision-making. Dr Patrick Hogan, who constructed the model, said: "The bees target their stop signal only at rivals within the colony, preventing the colony as a whole from becoming deadlocked with indecision when choosing a new home. This remarkable behaviour emerges naturally from the very simple interactions observed between the individual bees in the colony.” Dr James Marshall, a Reader in the Department of Computer Science who led the UK involvement in the project, added: "I think that the bees have taught us a valuable lesson about how robust collective decisions can be made even when all the individuals have quite limited information. In the future, I think the rules we found the honeybees following could prove useful in a variety of engineering applications; getting a swarm of robots to make a collective decision using the honeybee rules is one very exciting possibility."
The paper was chosen as a research highlight by the Science Express web site, which publishes Science papers in advance of print. If you subscribe to Science you can read the full paper here. An open-access commentary on the paper is available here.