Honeybee Colonies And Human Brains May Make Decisions Using The Same Laws

Honeybees communicate in flight. Darios/Shutterstock 

Aliyah Kovner 30 Mar 2018, 00:07

A group of researchers from the University of Sheffield have discovered that house-hunting honeybee colonies follow similar behavioral patterns as humans when making decisions.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, further deepen the recently observed similarities between how human neurons interact with the rest of the brain and how the input of bees relates to the collective actions of the colony as a whole – referred to as a superorganism.

Since the 1800s, a branch of science known as psychophysics has been examining how our brains create perceptions and make choices in response to external stimulus. Past studies in this field have shown that not only humans, but fish, birds, insects, and even brainless organisms like bacteria adhere to several tried and true “laws” of decision making. Now, we can add superorganisms to that list.

As esoteric as this topic may sound, the Sheffield team assert that there is still much to be learned about why our brains follow the patterns they do, and it’s quite a bit easier to observe a colony of bees responding to the environment than it is to watch the machinations occurring inside a living brain.

“With this view in mind, parallels between bees in a colony and neurons in a brain can be traced, helping us to understand and identify the general mechanisms underlying psychophysics laws, which may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the human brain,” said the paper’s first author, Dr Andreagiovanni Reina, in a statement.

The study assessed whether honeybees conform to three fundamental psychophysics concepts – Piéron’s Law, Hicks Law, and Weber’s Law – using data collected in a 2012 investigation on how honeybees collectively decide where to set up their next colony.

(Read a description of this fascinating process here)

After constructing a computer model of the earlier bee behavior observations, the team determined that the bees’ behavior met all three laws.

When deciding between many available nest options, the bees took a longer amount of time to pick one – thus following Hick’s law describing how human decision time increases significantly as the number of choices goes up. When deciding between nest options that were ideal, the bees spent less time deliberating, meeting Piéron’s law that the brain is faster at picking between high-quality options than it is at picking among poor quality. 

And finally, the honeybees’ error rate – the proportion of times they failed to choose the most suitable location – was lowest when the difference in quality between the sites was minimal. This finding is in accordance with Weber’s law that the brain is less able to discern small differences between options.

Speculating on why both individual animals' minds and collective hive minds follow these psychophysical patterns, the authors suggest "these laws arise from fundamental mechanisms of information processing and decision-making." 

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