Indiana State University Newsroom

House hunting by honey bees: a study of effective group decision making

February 17, 2009

Bees work together like a small democracy to choose a new nesting site, according to a New York professor who spoke at Indiana State University for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday celebration.

Thomas Seeley, a professor and chairman in department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in New York, stated that it's a complex decision-making process when bees use their instinct of house hunting to find a new nesting site during a talk on Feb. 10 as part of the biology seminar series.

"The same kind of thing we do when we make group decision is done by the bees," Seeley said. "This kind of decision making by groups is not automatic."

He explained that a bees' dream home is a secluded, spacious nest with a small entrance hole to keep the nest warm during winter and is high off the ground so it's undetected.

Seeley said there were two scientists before him who studied how bees communicated to find a good beehive location.

Karl von Frisch, an Australian zoologist, discovered that bees do waggle dances to inform their swarm the food source location. Martin Lindauer, a German behavioral scientist, discovered through observations that homeless bees use a democratic method to decide the new nest location.

"Nobody went forth on this question of how democracy works when honey bees swarm," Seeley said.

Seeley wanted to know how scout bees used their collected decision making to search for a new nesting site so he put colored tags on their thoraxes and video taped the dances.

Swarms of scout bees search miles around the countryside for many sites before debating until they form a "consensus," he said.

He explained individual bees building a consensus can be thought of as natural selection because scout bees have the highest recruitments to their site because of more dance circuits while bees from poor sites are out numbered and their signals are swamped.

At the beginning of a debate, there is no agreement but near the end, the bees agree to new nesting site.

"It is a little different because it is not a majority rule…it is a consensus and everyone must agree," Seeley said. "Once they get to the end of the process, they know their discussion is over and they can move to the new site."

In some Seeley's experiments, the bees first formed a quorum before moving to a consensus.

Seeley said many lessons are learned from bee activity.

Bees promote knowledge and disagreement with in a group, avoid tendency to seek rapid consensus and foster independent evaluation of the options, he said.

"Bees aggregate the opinions with speed and accuracy," Seeley said.


Contact: Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University, assistant professor, at 812- 237-2395 or

Writer: Marcie Brock, Indiana State University, media relations intern, at 812-237-3773.


Cutline: Thomas Seeley, a professor and chairman in department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in New York, speaks at Indiana State University as its Darwin Day speaker in the biology seminar series. ISU Photo/Justin Schwab