Monday, November 17, 2008

Bees Make Decisions, Function Without Leader

Press & Sun-Bulletin (USA), 11/16/2008

Question: How does the queen bee know what's going on in the hive?

Answer: This is a very interesting question, especially because you asked "How." So you think the queen bee knows how things go in the hive and controls her castle? This is quite a natural observation, because those bees look very well-orchestrated to work together for the common good in the hive, just like our human society. We have people who are responsible for monitoring and maintaining our communities, such as principals, mayors, and the president. So things must be the same in a colony of those social insects too.

Well, in fact, the mechanism that organizes the bees' society is quite different from that of our society. So the answer to your question is, the queen bee knows nearly NOTHING about what's going on in the hive. Moreover, there is no single individual anywhere in the hive that directs the operation of the whole colony.

The role of the queen bee in the hive is not even remotely close to what people would imagine from the words like "queen" or "king." Biologically, she is the mother of all the workers (female bees) and drones (male bees) in the hive, and laying eggs is the only thing she does for her entire life. Other worker bees usually don't lay eggs, so the queen bee is often considered a specialized "reproductive organ" of the whole hive, a "super-organism" made of many individual bees.

Then, how are those worker bees organized so nicely that they can collaborate to build hives, collect and distribute honey and pollen, and raise their larvae as a community? This question has attracted lots of attention from many scientists for hundreds of years. While details still remain unclear, research has provided more and more evidence showing that those social insects achieve complex tasks in a distributed way, without any central controller. Each individual insect acts following simple behavioral rules, using locally available information only…

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