The Waggle Dance Gets Bees Moving

The scout from the mediocre site will go forth again, either back to her first choice, or to another site, and return once again to the swarm.

If she has just revisited the earlier site, her dance will be even less vigorous than the time before. But if she has opted to join other scouts at a superior site, she'll get into the movement with gusto, completing far more circuits.

That process continues until one of the sites has a "quorum" of at least 15 scouts that remain there. At least 150 other scouts zip back and forth between the site and the swarm, carrying the message that a quorum has been reached.

The scouts pass the word through a technique that is not likely to be emulated in Congress, or any other lofty body. Each scout moves through the swarm, pressing her vibrating thorax against the other bees. That apparently tells them to warm up their flight muscles and get ready to move out.

The bees flex their muscles until they reach a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That produces an "audible vibration that is reminiscent of the revving of a race car engine," the researchers report. At that point the entire swarm takes off for the new home. A decision has been made, but was it the right one?

Seeley and his colleagues traveled to an island in the Gulf of Maine to find out. They set up a number of potential nests on the treeless island, some of which were small and mediocre, and one that was larger and superior.

Scouting bees found all the sites, although they rarely found the best site first. Then through a process of elimination, they settled on the best site nearly every time. The rest of the process remains somewhat of an "enigma," the researchers say, but the bees somehow sensed that a quorum had been reached.

The system works, the researchers say, because no scout was excluded from the process.

"A swarm's decision-making process is broadly diffused among all the scout bees in a swarm," they say. "Consequently, a swarm's decision-making process is based on the actions of hundreds of individuals, each one an autonomous agent capable of providing unique information for solving the house-hunting problem.

"Searching independently, widely and simultaneously, the hundreds of scout bees from a swarm bring back to the group diverse information -- the knowledge of superb, mediocre and even lousy sites -- which can be shared with the other scouts by means of waggle dances. All discoveries of potential nest sites are freely reported; no scout is stifled."

A great site results in terrific waggle dances, allowing the swarm to "avoid mass manias over poor options."

The keys to success, the researchers say, are an open competition of ideas, "promoting diversity of knowledge and independence of opinions among the group's members."

It works for the bees because everybody has a voice, and all the options are explored, and in the end the majority rules.

So could that work in Congress?

Undoubtedly, but let's skip the waggle dance.

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