, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 277-290

Collective decision-making in honey bees: how colonies choose among nectar sources

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A honey bee colony can skillfully choose among nectar sources. It will selectively exploit the most profitable source in an array and will rapidly shift its foraging efforts following changes in the array. How does this colony-level ability emerge from the behavior of individual bees? The answer lies in understanding how bees modulate their colony's rates of recruitment and abandonment for nectar sources in accordance with the profitability of each source. A forager modulates its behavior in relation to nectar source profitability: as profitability increases, the tempo of foraging increases, the intensity of dancing increases, and the probability of abandoning the source decreases. How does a forager assess the profitability of its nectar source? Bees accomplish this without making comparisons among nectar sources. Neither do the foragers compare different nectar sources to determine the relative profitability of any one source, nor do the food storers compare different nectar loads and indicate the relative profitability of each load to the foragers. Instead, each forager knows only about its particular nectar source and independently calculates the absolute profitability of its source. Even though each of a colony's foragers operates with extremely limited information about the colony's food sources, together they will generate a coherent colonylevel response to different food sources in which better ones are heavily exploited and poorer ones are abandoned. This is shown by a computer simulation of nectar-source selection by a colony in which foragers behave as described above. Nectar-source selection by honey bee colonies is a process of natural selection among alternative nectar sources as foragers from more profitable sources “survive” (continue visiting their source) longer and “reproduce” (recruit other foragers) better than do foragers from less profitable sources. Hence this colonial decision-making is based on decentralized control. We suggest that honey bee colonies possess decentralized decision-making because it combines effectiveness with simplicity of communication and computation within a colony.

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