, Volume 54, Issue 5, pp 511-520
Date: 22 Jul 2003

Choosing a home: how the scouts in a honey bee swarm perceive the completion of their group decision making

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Abstract

This study considers the mystery of how the scout bees in a honey bee swarm know when they have completed their group decision making regarding the swarm's new nest site. More specifically, we investigated how the scouts sense when it is appropriate for them to begin producing the worker piping signals that stimulate their swarm-mates to prepare for the flight to their new home. We tested two hypotheses: "consensus sensing," the scouts noting when all the bees performing waggle dances are advertising just one site; and "quorum sensing," the scouts noting when one site is being visited by a sufficiently large number of scouts. Our test involved monitoring four swarms as they discovered, recruited to, and chose between two nest boxes and their scouts started producing piping signals. We found that a consensus among the dancers was neither necessary nor sufficient for the start of worker piping, which indicates that the consensus sensing hypothesis is false. We also found that a buildup of 10–15 or more bees at one of the nest boxes was consistently associated with the start of worker piping, which indicates that the quorum sensing hypothesis may be true. In considering why the scout bees rely on reaching a quorum rather than a consensus as their cue of when to start preparing for liftoff, we suggest that quorum sensing may provide a better balance between accuracy and speed in decision making. In short, the bees appear to begin preparations for liftoff as soon as enough of the scout bees, but not all of them, have approved of one of the potential nest sites.

Communicated by M. Giurfa