How Bees, Ants, and Other Animals Ace Group Decision-Making

Animal behavior research shows ways to avoid dumb collective decisions.

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By Susan Milius, Science News

This is a phone conversation, so if Tom Seeley rolls his eyes, that’s his business. He’s a distinguished behavioral biologist, full professor at Cornell University, member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and so on. Yet he takes it pretty well when asked whether honeybees could have had a real estate crisis and crashed their banking system.

Seeley, at least voice-wise, stays polite and treats this as a serious question. Which it is.

Of course honeybees don’t have a banking system, but they do exhibit collective behavior. The queen bee doesn’t decide what the colony needs to do. Instead, each colony member does her or his bee thing, and out of hundreds or thousands of interactions, a collective decision emerges. Seeley’s next book, due out in 2010, will be called Honeybee Democracy.

Bees, ants, locusts and plenty of other animals collectively make life-or-death choices. The biologists studying animal groups are finding strange lab fellows these days in economists, social scientists, even money market specialists. They are trading tales of humans and of nonhuman animals to understand collective behavior and what makes it go right or wrong.

“There is a new excitement in this whole field of decision making these days,” says ant biologist Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol in England. Franks and Seeley organized a multidisciplinary conference on collective decision making held in January at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. And both biologists contributed to a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (March 27) on the same topic. The issue considers insects as well as the European Parliament.

Even compared with gatherings of diplomats in bespoke suits, bee nests and ant colonies have plenty to contribute to the field. “The really lovely thing is that we can take these things apart and put them back together again, and we can challenge them with different problems,” Franks says. Seeley notes that studying honeybees has taught him a lot about how to run faculty meetings.

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