198. Bee-brained

21 Jan

You make decisions. How good you are at doing so is irrelevant, what matters is that you make them. You make them in the same way as a bee. But how is that?

Decision making is a, decidedly complex process but it is vital. Also the actual process is near identical for anything with a decent brain. Decision making works like a debate. Neurons which zip around the brain collecting information and forming plans. Then neurons form groups and you ‘think.’ If you have ever been in two minds when making a decision, that is because it is exactly what happens.

Neurons find those sharing the same idea and send positive affirming signals. Which is nice of them. Then they find those who disagree with them and send inhibiting signals. The equivalent of you trying to win an argument by telling the opposition to shut up. As time passes the numbers supporting each decision vary, heading towards a single answer. When a large enough consensus of opinion is reached then hooray! You have just made a decision.

As was previously mentioned this is a technique that we use because it works, in fact every creature with a complex brain uses it. Bees do not have complex brains, they are fuzzy little colourful balls that fly into flowers and build hexagons; yet they use the same technique. No bee is smart enough to use the technique, so they use many bees, and form a hive mind.

When a group of bees are ready to leave with a new queen and found a new colony, a good location is a priority. Hundreds of scout bees fly out into the world, collect information and return with their favourite location in mind. Once the bees have gathered they have a little party. Each scout bee performs a dance to indicate the location of its preferred site, but opinion is divided. To stop the spread of other ideas bees have to stop competitors. Now, it is unlikely that you have tried, but if you had you might know it is rather difficult to inhibit a bee. So instead they headbutt others.

In the face of being headbutted repeatedly some bees change their decision and dance to a different tune. When consensus is reached the headbutting ceases and the scout bees indicate the location with a victorious waggle dance. A decision was made.

The similarity between bee-butting in a hive and decision making in the brain is alarming as bees and humans, as you may have guessed, have followed rather different evolutionary paths. Humans evolved as individuals whereas bees have evolved as whole hives. So why the similarity? Because, it seems, group discussion and headbutting is the way to make the best decisions.

Photograph from

Further Reading


Posted by on January 21, 2012 in Articles, Trivia


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2 responses to “198. Bee-brained

  1. Anonymous

    February 9, 2012 at 20:49

    Isn’t it the case that the queen bee makes the decision and the worker bees simply have to follow her?

    • Alexandre R.D.M. Coates

      February 9, 2012 at 22:48

      No, she in this case has yet to leave the parent hive because she is too valuable to go out frivolously. So she, and the rest of the preparing hive depend upon the information provided by the scouts. The reason the system works is because if one or two bees have made terrible decisions, the majority will have made more suitable decisions, reducing the rsik from individual error. Depending upon the queen would increase that risk.

      Thank you for you question.


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