Wednesday, May 13, 2009

swarm savvy

ScienceNews | “There is a new excitement in this whole field of decision making these days,” says ant biologist Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol in England. Franks and Seeley organized a multidisciplinary conference on collective decision making held in January at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. And both biologists contributed to a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (March 27) on the same topic. The issue considers insects as well as the European Parliament.

Even compared with gatherings of diplomats in bespoke suits, bee nests and ant colonies have plenty to contribute to the field. “The really lovely thing is that we can take these things apart and put them back together again, and we can challenge them with different problems,” Franks says. Seeley notes that studying honeybees has taught him a lot about how to run faculty meetings.

All but the darkest view of university professors credits them with more cognitive power than can be found in the minuscule brains (sorry, bees) of insects. So one might wonder how well collective wisdom works for nonhuman animals.

That question is what makes the research so intriguing. Bee colonies have been making collective decisions for about 30 million years, Seeley says, “so they’ve had lots of chances for failing systems to get pruned out by natural selection.” Bees have unique needs of course, but when it comes to real estate (alas, humans), bees almost always get it right.