Bees Hold Dance-Offs to Make Decisions

For honeybees, elaborate group decisions are made in a process that involves dancing.

Bees sometimes hold 'dance-offs' to make difficult decisions. rtbilder/Shutterstock

Honeybees represent only a small fraction of the 20,000 known species of bees, but new evidence shows that they might be the most democratic. They are mostly distinguished from other bees by their honey production and construction of nests out of wax. As Cornell University explains, they also make mass decisions based on a democratic dance-off.

Thomas Seeley is a professor of neurobiology and the author of the book, “Honeybee Democracy.” As Seeley describes it, when a hive becomes overpopulated, around two-thirds of the bees will leave the nest with an old queen. A honeybee colony usually consists of one fertile queen bee and a few thousand drone bees, or fertile males. There is also a large population of sterile female worker or scout bees.

Gathering in a temporary location, they will send out hundreds of scouts to look for the best new home. And when they return to the hive, the bees announce their finds with a dance. If the scout likes the possible new place, she will dance vigorously. If she’s so-so on it, her moves are more lackadaisical.

As Seeley explains it, “A scout adjusts how long she dances according to the goodness of the site. She has a built-in ability to judge site quality, and she is honest; if the site is mediocre she won't advertise it strongly." This in turn elicits the bees to go investigate the sites for themselves. And the new home is chosen once the majority agrees that it is worthy.

This means that the bees operate as a sort of collective super-brain. Each bee contributes enough information to help the group make the best decision as a whole. As Seeley puts it, "Consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them."

In other words, since every bee has the same common interest, they make the best decisions with different members and an impartial leader.