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

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.

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Notes

  1. In naming our hypotheses, we have chosen the words "consensus" and "quorum" based on their definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Consensus: agreement in opinion; the collective unanimous opinion of a number of persons. Quorum: a fixed number of members of any body, society, etc., whose presence is necessary for the proper or valid transaction of business.

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Acknowledgements

The research reported here was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (grant IBN02–10541), the National Geographic Society (grant 7055–1), and the UCR Academic Senate. We thank Marjorie Martin for letting us keep our bees at her home at Kittery Point, Maine; Siobhan Cully for spending many hours monitoring the nest box overlooking Broad Cove; and Dr. James Morin for providing space and facilities at the Shoals Marine Laboratory. This is contribution no. 113 of the Shoals Marine Laboratory.

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Correspondence to Thomas D. Seeley.

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Communicated by M. Giurfa

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Seeley, T.D., Visscher, P.K. Choosing a home: how the scouts in a honey bee swarm perceive the completion of their group decision making. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 54, 511–520 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-003-0664-6

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Keywords

  • Apis mellifera
  • Group decision making
  • Honey bees
  • Nest-site selection
  • Quorum sensing