Skip to main content

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 3.


  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.


  • Adam B (1987) Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey. Northern Bee Books, Hebden Bridge

  • Adams ES (1990) Boundary disputes in the territorial ant Azteca trigona: effects of asymmetries in colony size. Anim Behav 39:321–328

    Google Scholar 

  • Beckers R, Deneubourg J-L, Goss S, Pasteels JM (1990) Collective decision making through food recruitment. Insectes Soc 37:258–267

    Google Scholar 

  • Biesmeijer JC, Ermers MCW (1999) Social foraging in stingless bees: how colonies of Melipona fasciata choose among nectar sources. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 46:129–140

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boehm C (1992) Segmentary 'warfare' and the management of conflict: comparison of East African chimpanzees and patrilineal–patrilocal humans. In: Harcourt AH, DeWall FBM (eds) Coalitions and alliances in humans and other animals. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 137–173

  • Boinski S, Garber PA (2000) On the move: how and why animals travel in groups. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourke AFG, Franks NR (1995) Social evolution in ants. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

  • Camazine S, Visscher PK, Finley J, Vetter RS (1999) House-hunting by honey bee swarms: collective decisions and individual behaviors. Insectes Soc 46:348–360

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Camazine S, Deneubourg J-L, Franks NR, Sneyd J, Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E (2001) Self-organization in biological systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

  • Cole B, Trampus FI (1999) Activity cycles in ant colonies: worker interactions and decentralized control. In: Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (eds) Information processing in social insects. Birkhäuser, Basel, pp 289–308

  • Combs GF (1972) The engorgement of swarming worker honeybees. J Apic Res 11:121–128

    Google Scholar 

  • Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, and Pasteels JM (1999) Decision-making in foraging by social insects. In: Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (eds) Information processing in social insects. Birkhäuser, Basel, pp 331–354

  • Esch H (1967) The sounds produced by swarming honey bees. Z Vergl Physiol 56:408–411

    Google Scholar 

  • Franks NR, Fletcher CR (1983) Spatial patterns in army ant foraging and migration: Eciton burchelli on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 12:261–270

    Google Scholar 

  • Franks NR, Wilby A, Silverman BW, and Tofts C (1992) Self-organizing nest construction in ants: sophisticated building by blind bulldozing. Anim Behav 44:357–375

    Google Scholar 

  • Franks NR, Pratt SC, Mallon EB, Britton NF, Sumpter DJT (2002) Information flow, opinion polling and collective intelligence in house-hunting social insects. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B 337:1567–1583

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goss S, Aron S, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (1989) Self-organized shortcuts in the Argentine Ant. Naturwissenschaften 76:579–581

    Google Scholar 

  • Heinrich B (1981) The mechanisms and energetics of honeybee swarm temperature regulation. J Exp Biol 91:25–55

    Google Scholar 

  • Hölldobler B (1982) Foraging and spatiotemporal territories in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus Wheeler. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 9:301–314

    Google Scholar 

  • Jeanne RL (1996) Regulation of nest construction behaviour in Polybia occidentalis. Anim Behav 52:473–488

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kummer H (1971) Primate societies: group techniques of ecological adaptation. Aldine, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Lindauer M (1955) Schwarmbienen auf Wohnungssuche. Z Vergl Physiol 37:263–324

    Google Scholar 

  • Mallon EB, Pratt SC, Franks NR (2001) Individual and collective decision-making during nest site selection by the ant Leptothorax albipennis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 50:352–359

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martin P (1963) Die Steuerung der Volksteilung beim Schwärmen der Bienen. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Problem der Wanderschwärme. Insectes Soc 10:13–42

    Google Scholar 

  • Michener CD (1974) The social behavior of the bees. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

  • Mitchell C (1970) Weights of workers and drones. Am Bee J 110:468–469

    Google Scholar 

  • O'Donnell S, Jeanne RL (1990) Forager specialization and the control of nest repair in Polybia occidentalis Olivier (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 27:359–364

    Google Scholar 

  • Pratt SC (1998) Condition-dependent timing of comb construction by honeybee colonies: how do workers know when to start building? Anim Behav 56:603–610

    Google Scholar 

  • Pratt SC, Mallon EB, Sumpter DJT, Franks NR (2002) Quorum sensing, recruitment, and collective decision-making during colony emigration by the ant Leptothorax albipennis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 52:117–127

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prins HHT (1996) Ecology and behaviour of the African buffalo: social inequality and decision making. Chapman and Hall, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Schricker B (1965) Die Orientierung der Honigbiene in der Dämmerung. Z Vergl Physiol 49:420–458

    Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD (1977) Measurement of nest cavity volume by the honey bee ( Apis mellifera). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 2:201–227

    Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD (1995) The wisdom of the hive. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

  • Seeley TD (2003) Consensus building during nest-site selection in honey bee swarms: the expiration of dissent. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 53:417–424

    Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD, Buhrman SC (1999) Group decision making in swarms of honey bees. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 45:19–31

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD, Buhrman SC (2001) Nest-site selection in honey bees: how well do swarms implement the "best-of-N" decision rule? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 49:416–427

    Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD, Tautz J (2001) Worker piping in honey bee swarms and its role in preparing for liftoff. J Comp Physiol A 187:667–676

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD, Morse RA, Visscher PK (1979) The natural history of the flight of honey bee swarms. Psyche 86:103–113

    Google Scholar 

  • Seeley TD, Kleinhenz M, Bujok B, Tautz J (2003) Thorough warm-up before take-off in honey bee swarms. Naturwissenschaften 40:156–260

    Google Scholar 

  • Shapiro JA, Dworkin M (1997) Bacteria as multicellular organisms. Oxford University Press, New York

  • Strickland TR, Tofts CMN, Franks NR (1992) A path choice algorithm for ants. Naturwissenschaften 79:567–572

    Google Scholar 

  • Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E, Deneubourg J-L (1999) The mechanisms and rules of coordinated building in social insects. In: Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (eds) Information processing in social insects. Birkhäuser, Basel, pp 309–330

  • Visscher PK (2003) How self organization evolves. Nature 421:799–800

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Visscher PK, Camazine S (1999) The mystery of swarming honeybees: from individual behaviors to collective decisions. In: Detrain C, Deneubourg J-L, Pasteels JM (eds) Information processing in social insects. Birkhäuser, Basel, pp 355–378

  • Winston ML (1987) The biology of the honey bee. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas D. Seeley.

Additional information

Communicated by M. Giurfa

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


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