Do bees mimic brains? I’ve recently read a fascinating book entitled “Honeybee Democracy” by Prof. Thomas Seeley which describes the author’s research over the past 30 years into how it is that a honeybee swarm decides, when their hives become overcrowded, where to establish a new nest and how it is that the swarm, consisting of thousands of individuals, gets there intact. The book is an easy, pleasurable read and offers good descriptions on how researchers learn to ask relevant questions of their subject, devise creative experiments to probe their subjects' responses, and patiently record the data that, hopefully, will answer these questions.
The answers Prof. Seeley and his colleagues arrived at are that a small percent (a few hundred) of the worker bees become scouts for new nests. Each scout then surveys up to a few of the several potential sites within their range and then informs their fellow scouts (by the intensity and orientation of their waggle dancing) where and how good each of these sites are. Over several hours to a few days the scouts establish a quorum focused on the best site available. The scouts that comprise this quorum then activate and lead their colony, including their queen, to this new nest site.
The details of this research and the processes uncovered are more intricate than I could relate in my brief summary above, but equally interesting is the relevance of these findings to our attempts to understand the decision-making processes in higher organisms (including humans).
Because of the highly cooperative behavior of the individuals involved in a colony of social insects, these colonies have been referred to as super-organisms. That is, there is a meaningful analogy between the cooperative and highly integrated behavior of the individual cells in our highly complex bodies and the cooperative and highly integrated behavior of the individual bees (or ants) living in a colony. Like the different cells in our body, each of which is assigned some specialized function necessary for our survival, the individual insects of these colonies become specialized to carry out specific functions necessary for the survival of the colony.
In the case of behaviors requiring our brains to initiate an action in an environment filled with competing possibilities it is likely that the nerve cells sensing of the possibilities for our next action act like the bee scouts surveying potential nest sites and pass on their information to cells that integrate this information and determine which action best meets our needs of the moment. Think, for example, of the process of choosing which dessert to sample at a potluck. Or, when many humans are involved, the process of selecting the best policy to pursue at a New England town meeting. Is it possible that entomologists studying the behavior of social insects will become valued collaborators of neuroscientists attempting to understand the workings of our brains or social scientists attempting to fathom the behavior of large groups?
Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at email@example.com.