Department of Neurobiology and Behavior
House Hunting by Honey Bees: A Study of Effective Group Decision Making
Friday, April 17, 2009
Engineering Building 110, 4:00 PM
The problem of social choice has challenged social philosophers and political scientists for centuries. The fundamental decision-making challenge for groups is how to turn individual preferences for different outcomes into a single choice for the group as a whole. This problem has been studied mainly with respect to human groups, which have developed a variety of voting procedures to single out one option from a list of possible choices: majority rule, plurality wins, various weighted-voting systems, and others. Social choice in animal groups is less well studied, though examples are abundant. In this talk, I will present a striking example of decision making by an animal group: the choice of a nesting site by a swarm of honey bees. I’ve been investigating this process for the past decade using a variety of observational, experimental, and mathematical-modeling studies. This work has revealed a set of behavioral mechanisms in a swarm that consistently yields excellent collective decisions. Thus evolution has supplied an intriguing answer to the question of how to make a group function as an effective decision-making unit.
Dr. Thomas D. Seeley is a Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, where he teaches courses in animal behavior and does research on the functional organization of honey bee colonies.
He began keeping and studying bees in 1969, while a high school student, when he brought home a swarm that he had collected in a hastily constructed “hive.” When a college student, he worked each summer in the honey bee laboratory at Cornell University, where he learned the craft of beekeeping and began probing the inner workings of the bee colony. Thoroughly intrigued by the smooth functioning of honey bee colonies, he went on to graduate school at Harvard University where he studied under two ant men (Drs. Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson), began his research on bees in earnest, and earned his Ph.D. in 1978.
His research focuses on the internal organization of honey bee colonies and has been summarized in three books: Honeybee Ecology (1985, Princeton University Press), The Wisdom of the Hive (1995, Harvard University Press), and Honeybee Democracy (forthcoming, in 2009).