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How to tell a bee to shut up without getting stung

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It helps to be a boss bee.

From “Decisions, Decisions: House-Hunting Honey Bees Work Like Complex Brains” (ScienceDaily, Dec. 8, 2011), we learn:

Swarms of honey bees split off from their mother colony and go house-hunting, looking for a secure cavity in a tree or elsewhere that will make a good home for the new colony. In this process, they communicate to each other what they have found by dancing: a scout bee returning from a good site moves over and over in a figure-eight pattern that indicates the direction and the distance to the site, and other scouts read these dances and inspect the site themselves.

But how do the bees decide between sites?

Visscher, Seeley and colleagues report Dec. 8 in Science Express that they have found another, overlooked, signal that plays a role in this process — a signal that is similar to those that occur between neurons in the brains of monkeys making decisions. Called the “stop signal,” it is a very short buzz delivered by the sender scout while butting her head against the dancer. Its effect is to shorten and ultimately end the dance.

The message the sender scout is conveying to the dancer appears to be that the dancer should curb her enthusiasm, because there is another nest site worthy of consideration,” Visscher said. “Such an inhibitory signal is not necessarily hostile. It’s simply saying, ‘Wait a minute, here’s something else to consider, so let’s not be hasty in recruiting every bee to a site that may not be the best one for the swarm. All the bees have a common interest in choosing the best available site.”

Interesting example of a collective thought process that works like an individual one.

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