Bees choose by doing ‘neuron’ dance

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Copy of Copy of ss Bee on onion flower INDEPEDENT NEWSPAPERS File image - Seventy-five children at a primary school in Bapsfontein on the East Rand were stung by bees. Photo: Ingrid N�nni

Washington - Honey bees do a little dance to communicate with each other that mimics signals in the brain, a finding that may shed light on how Earth's creatures make choices, scientists said on Thursday.

“The decision-making mechanisms in nervous systems and insect societies are strikingly similar,” said the study in the December 8 issue of Science Express.

In the brain, as scientists have discovered in previous studies on monkeys, lots of neurons activate when there is a decision to be made.

Eventually, some neurons stop others from activating, and the alternative with the fewest “no” signals is chosen.

Now a US-British team led by Thomas Seeley of Cornell University in New York state has shown that honey bees act out this neuron dance when they are communicating with each other about where to set up their hive.

Researchers set off a swarm of honey bees on an island off the coast of the northeastern state of Maine, where there were no natural places to nest, and put out two identical boxes where they could nest.

They watched as the scout bees visited the potential new homes, shot video of their waggle dances by which they describe what they found to each other, and even took sound recordings of small stop signals - a short head butt accompanied by a buzz sound - that some of the bees made.

By keeping track of which bees had visited which box by marking them pink or yellow, they were able to tell that stop signals were delivered by scouts who had already seen a box and were being told about a different box by another bee.

“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,” said co-author P. Kirk Visscher of the University of California, Riverside.

“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.'“

Bees swarm when they are leaving an overcrowded hive in search of a new home, toting along their mother Queen.

Scout bees go look for new potential hive sites, and return to the group which typically stays near the original hive until a new one is found.

To tell the other bees about what is out there, a dancing bee will make figure eight shapes and waggle moves - the length of the waggle tells how far the new hive is.

The number of scouts who like a certain site eventually reaches a critical level, and the swarm takes off for its new home.

Since all bees share a common interest in choosing the best available site, researchers believe the process helps the group decide, even when the options are the nearly the same.

“These inhibitory connections help ensure that only one of the alternatives is chosen and may enable statistically optimal decision making,” the study said. - Sapa-AFP

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