Posted on 09 March 2012.
A beekeeper holds up a bee hive. Photo, Damian Dovarganes, AP
BY JACQUELINE GUZMAN
Host: You’ve seen them. You’ve dodged them. And chances are, you’ve been stung by them. But bees are more complex and less dangerous than we might think. A recent study finds that these busy little creatures make decisions much as our brains do.
In the summer of 2009, professor Thomas Seeley was following a swarm of honeybees as they moved their hive. He watched the scout bees do their “waggle dances” to recruit others to a potential nesting site. He took a small microphone, listened in on those dancers and was surprised at what he heard.
Sound: Bees beeping from video – Courtesy of Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, of Cornell University.
Seeley: I heard these little “beep” sounds and I didn’t know what those were. And they caught my attention, so I looked closely and found that that beeping was produced when a bee butted her head against a dancer. (:11)
Seeley rounded up a group of researchers to see what was going on. The team went to an island free of natural nests and gave the scouts a choice between two fake nesting boxes. They carefully observed how the bees chose their new home and published their conclusions in Science Magazine.
It turns out that the “beeping” was a strong signal from dominant scout bees, to stop the others from dancing and promoting the other site. Once the whole swarm was in agreement, they’d set up there.
Seeley’s team found a parallel between this process and the decision-making system we have in our brains.
Seeley: They’re both composed of lots of small units. In the case of the brain of course it’s the neurons – and for a colony of bees, it’s bees. (:14)
So essentially your brain works like a beehive. The neurons are like the “scout bees”. Each unit has its own impulse on what to do, which might conflict with another. There is some “head butting” and arguing among the neurons. But eventually, the units work together to reach a consensus. Seeley calls that “cross-inhibition” and says bees do the same to decide where to move.
Seeley: The swarm has to steer itself just as we have to steer ourselves when we decide to go from point A to point B.
Seeley’s observations have been noticed by beekeepers, too. Andrew Coté has been active in the field for 30 years and is the founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association. He says that much like humans, bees collaborate in order to achieve a goal.
Coté: It’s a fascinating society with a “hive” mentality, where the good of the unit, of the colony, is much more important than the individual. (:17)
Sound: Ambience of rooftop under narration.
Teamwork is crucial for a hive to thrive. Every member has a certain job: the queen’s is to lay the eggs. The workers look for food, bring back pollen. And others produce honey or wax.
But the bees’ teamwork isn’t limited within their own species. Coté explains that humans have worked closely with bees before… in an unusual way.
Coté: One of the most fascinating things about bees that most people don’t usually know is that they have been used in warfare. That catapults have been used to hurl hives of bees and wasps into the thick, into the fray of the enemy. (:30)
Sound: Bees buzzing in the hive; Roll faintly under narration
That sounds pretty scary, right? But Professor Seeley says that North American bees really aren’t as aggressive as people make them out to be.
Seeley: They see it as a very dangerous object, almost as though it were an unexploded bomb! And it looks a little bit like that they are these massive stinging insects. But what is remarkable is that the bees are very gentle. (:12)
Andrew Coté seconds that. On the roof of an Upper West Side high school — where he has some of his bees — he assured students that bees aren’t out to get them.
Sound: Student asking Coté if the bees can sting them:
Student: “Can the bees sting through this [shirt]?”
Coté: “They can, but they generally don’t”
Coté: Honeybees are not interested in us. They’re interested in honey, interested in nectar, in pollen. If you don’t kick the hive, you won’t have a problem with the bees. (:16)
Coté and Seeley agree that bees are harmless creatures. As long as you give them some space, they’re pretty indifferent. Like us, they’re just trying to make decisions that’ll get their job done effectively. Jacqueline Guzman, Columbia Radio News.