It was the first swarm of the season at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
The bees swirled, darkening the sky, and then swarmed from one of bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's hives around 2 p.m. It was a sight to "bee-hold." At the onset, the bees looked quite confused, as if not knowing what to do. (Well, after all, they'd never done this before!) Most joined the queen in a cluster on a nearby tree branch. A few stragglers touched down on leaves.
Still others headed buzzed over to the empty hive that Cobey had strategically placed below the swarm.
A few hours later, Cobey hived the swarm. Voila!
The entire scenario reminded us what biologist Thomas Seeley of Cornell University said when he addressed two separate UC Davis crowds on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20.
Seeley, a professor in Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (he teaches courses on animal behavior and researches the functional organization of honey bee colonies), outlined what bees do when they swarm.
They do it, he said, through "swarm intelligence, the solving of a cognitive problem by two or more individuals who independently collect information and process it through social interactions."
"With the right organization, a group can overcome the cognitive limitations of its members and achieve a high collective IQ. To understand how to endow groups with swarm intelligence, it is useful to examine natural systems that have evolved this ability. An excellent example is a swarm of honey bees solving the life-or-death problem of finding a new home. A honey bee swarm accomplishes this through a process that includes collective fact-finding, open sharing of information, vigorous debating, and fair voting by the hundreds of bees in a swarm that function as nest-site scouts.”
In his informative book, The Honeybee Democracy, Seeley writes: "Beekeepers have long observed, and lamented, the tendency of their hives to swarm in the late spring and early summer. When this happens, the majority of a colony's members--a crowd of some 10,000 worker bees--flies off with the old queen to produce a daughter colony, while the rest stays at home and rears a new queen to perpetuate the parental colony. The migrating bees settle on a tree branch in a beardlike cluster and then hang there together for several hours or a few days. During this time, these homeless insects will do something truly amazing; they will hold a democratic debate to choose their new home."
What they do IS truly amazing. We watched the swirl of bees cluster on a tree branch where they paused, as if waiting for "directions." (Or a Google map?)
We didn't see what Seeley calls "the collective-decision making of the swarm" and "the democratic debate" but indeed that happened, as it's been happening for millions of years.
In the end, the Laidlaw bees all relocated to their new home.
Home, sweet home.
Like to know more about honey bees make collective decisions?
Mark your calendar to attend a seminar this week at the University of California, Davis.
Brian Johnson, assistant professor at the UC Davis Department of Entomology, will speak on "Organization of Work in the Honey Bee" from 12:10 to 1 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17 in 6 Olson Hall. This is part of the Animal Behavior Graduate Group's winter seminar series.
The talk is open to all interested persons.
"I will be speaking on the role of self-organizing pattern formation mechanisms in biology using collective decision making in the honey bee as a case history," said Johnson, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty last year. He received his doctorate in 2004 from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. in behavioral biology. His UC Davis lab does research on integrative approaches to honey bee behavior, genetics, evolution, and health.
Johnson's major professor, noted bee expert Thomas Seeley of Cornell, delivered two presentations at UC Davis last month.
Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, says that honey bees "make decisions collectively--and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problems of choosing and traveling to a new home, honey bees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building."
Fortunately, Seeley's two UC Davis talks are available for (yes, free!) public viewing on UCTV. The first, presented Jan. 19, is titled Swarm Intelligence in Honey Bees. The second, given Jan. 20, is The Flight Guidance Mechanism of Honey Bee Swarms.
Also on UCTV, you can listen to Johnson's UC Davis talk last October on How Bees Use Teamwork to Make Honey.
All three were webcast by professor James R. Carey of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Carey strongly believes that research seminars from all 10 UC campuses should be recorded and posted on UCTV. He led the drive to make that happen.
One thing's for certain: you'll never look at honey bees the same way again after accessing these three videos--or reading Seeley's book--or attending Johnson's lecture on Friday.
Thomas Seeley has. Many times.
"Choosing the right dwelling place is a life-or-death matter for a honeybee colony," he writes in his book, Honeybee Democracy. "If a colony chooses poorly, and so occupies a nest cavity that is too small to hold the honey stores to survive winter, or that provides it with poor protection from cold winds and hungry marauders, then it will die."
Seeley, 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, will present two lectures this week on the UC Davis campus.
Seeley will speak on “Swarm Intelligence in Honey Bees” from 4:10 to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19 in 2 Wellman Hall as part of the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology’s winter seminar series. Host is Rick Grosberg, professor of evolution and ecology.
Then on Friday, Jan. 20, Seeley will speak on “The Flight Guidance Mechanisms of Honey Bee Swarms" at 12:10 p.m. in 6 Olsen Hall as part of the UC Davis Animal Behavior Group’s winter seminar series. His host will be Brian Johnson, assistant professor at the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Of his Thursday talk, Seeley says: “Swarm intelligence is the solving of a cognitive problem by two or more individuals who independently collect information and process it through social interactions. With the right organization, a group can overcome the cognitive limitations of its members and achieve a high collective IQ. To understand how to endow groups with swarm intelligence, it is useful to examine natural systems that have evolved this ability. An excellent example is a swarm of honey bees solving the life-or-death problem of finding a new home. A honey bee swarm accomplishes this through a process that includes collective fact-finding, open sharing of information, vigorous debating, and fair voting by the hundreds of bees in a swarm that function as nest-site scouts.”
Seeley said he will show “how these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to achieving collective wisdom and effective group decision making.”
Seeley, who grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., began keeping and studying bees while a high school student. He left Ithaca in 1970 to attend college at Dartmouth, but he returned home each summer to work for Roger A. Morse at the Dyce Laboratory for Honey Bee Studies at Cornell University. There he learned the craft of beekeeping and “began probing the inner workings of the honey bee colony. “
Thoroughly intrigued by the smooth functioning of bee colonies, Seeley went on to graduate school at Harvard University, earning his doctorate in 1978.
Seeley subsequently taught at Yale for six years, then worked his way home to Ithaca/Cornell in 1986, "where I’ve been ever since.”
In recognition of his scientific work, Seeley has received the Senior Scientist Prize of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Seeley’s research focuses on the internal organization of honey bee colonies. His work is summarized in three books: "Honeybee Ecology" (1985, Princeton University Press), 'The Wisdom of the Hive" (1995, Harvard University Press), and "Honeybee Democracy" (2010, Princeton University Press).