Humans aren’t the only ones who find themselves entangled in a dancing democracy–it turns out that bees do too–and they do a quantum dance (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show). But since 2006, 20 to 40% of US bee colonies have died out. Has the cause of this finally been identified?

When honeybees seek a new home, they choose the best site through a democratic process that humans would do well to emulate. Biologist Thomas Seeley as documented the elaborate decision-making process that honeybees use when they make the life-or-death choice of a new nesting cavity.

When a hive becomes overpopulated, two-thirds of the worker bees and the old queen leave and gather on a nearby branch. Over the next few days, several hundred scout bees search out 10 to 20 potential sites in hollow trees. Meanwhile back at the swarm, each site gets announced with a dance. Seeley says, “A scout adjusts how long she dances according to the goodness of the site. She has a built-in ability to judge site quality, and she is honest; if the site is mediocre she won’t advertise it strongly.”

In turn, other scouts inspect the sites and return to dance for themselves. The best site elicits the most vigorous dances, so its popularity among the scouts grows the fastest. The most popular site is chosen when the number of bees visiting it reaches a critical threshold. According to Seeley, “Consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them.”

The bee’s decision-making process is similar to how neurons work to make decisions in primate brains, Seeley says. In both swarms and brains, no individual bee or neuron has an overview, but with many independent individuals providing different pieces of information the group achieves optimal decision-making. Ants similarly organize themselves to make collective decisions. Maybe this is why many scientists think that insects will be the dominant life form on Earth in the future.

But more and more, bees aren’t making it back to the hive to dance anymore–instead, they are flying out to look for nectar and dying. In order to figure out what is causing these deaths, scientists have to look for the scattered bee corpses and bring them back to the laboratory to study–not an easy task

Suspected bee death reasons range from pesticides to genetically modified food. Now researchers think it may be a fungus and a virus, which have teamed up to cause the demise of honeybees. This has been discovered by another unique team: Homeland Security and scientists. In the October 6th edition of the New York Times, Kirk Johnson quotes bee expert Colin Henderson as saying, “Together we could look at things nobody else was looking at.”

Bees have a job, but many humans don’t, and in times like these (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show), websites at the edge (like this one) find themselves dancing as fast as they can, trying to cover expenses. It costs surprisingly little to make sure we’ll still be here when you switch on your computer tomorrow–You can keep us going for less than a latte a WEEK. Yes, less than $12 gets you a 3-month subscription, so you don’t need to wait another minute, you can subscribe today!

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