A Bee Colony Closely Parallels the Neurons of the Brain, Say Scientists

The two 'super-organisms' seem to follow the same rules.

The human brain follows certain laws, which govern how the complex organ reacts to stimuli and makes decisions. In a new study, scientists argue that super-organisms like honeybees follow the same laws: Like neurons in the brain, they argue, the different bees in a colony coordinate their responses to external stimuli according to strict rules. This discovery suggests, for the first time, that psychological and physical laws don’t just operate in human brains but drive other natural behaviors as well.

In the study, released Tuesday in Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Sheffield and the Italian National Research Council observe bees to better understand the basic principles that guide these laws. If bees follow the same laws as neurons, then observing them can lead to a better understanding of the human brain. Studying bee colonies, they figure, is simpler than watching the neurons of a brain while a human makes a decision.

“This study is exciting because it suggests that honeybee colonies adhere to the same laws as the brain when making collective decisions,” co-author Andreagiovannia Reina, Ph.D. explained in a statement released Tuesday. “This study also supports the view of bee colonies as being similar to complete organisms or better still, super-organisms, composed of a large number of fully developed and autonomous individuals that interact with each other to bring forth a collective response.”

Bees operate as a super-organism. 


Most biologists refer to honeybees as super-organisms, wherein the individuals comprising a hive are comparable to the cells that make up a single organism. Working together through structured, cooperative behavior bolsters the hive’s chance for survival. The ability to make decisions collectively has previously been compared to the way a brain’s different parts are involved in cognitive deliberation, but here, the scientists take the analysis a step further by observing how bees make the difficult decision of choosing a nest location for the entire group.

In the spring, colonies of European bees go through a mix-up: Part of the swarm leaves to find the best possible nesting location, while the other half stays behind to protect the queen. After exploring, scout bees return to the hive to recruit other scouts to check out the site, delivering “stop signals.” When the honeybees reach a collective agreement for the same option, the colony moves.

Hives are chosen via collective decision making. 


This process became the basis of the researchers’ theoretical model, which led the researchers to determine that the bee colony acts as a single super-organism that then coordinates a response to an external stimulus. They conclude, in the statement accompanying the paper, that “the way in which bees ‘speak’ with each other and make decisions is comparable to the way the many individual neurons in the human brain interact with each other.”

Just as individual neurons in the brain don’t obey psychophysical laws themselves but do so as part of the whole brain, single bees sometimes fire off different signals than the other bees. But regardless, the super-organism still obeys the rules — just like the brain.

And, just like bees, the human brain is known to follow certain rules. Pieron’s Law, for example, states that the brain makes decisions more quickly when the options to choose from are all of high quality. Hick’s Law, meanwhile, shows that the brain makes decisions more slowly when the number of options increases; with their model, the scientists determined that decision-making among bees follows similar guidelines. The colony chooses the location of their new hive more quickly when it has high-quality nest-site options and does so more slowly when the site options are limited.

Then, there’s Weber’s Law, which states that the brain selects the best option when there is a “minimum difference between the qualities of the options.” Like the brain, bee colonies were shown to do the same.

“With this view in mind, parallels between bees in a colony and neurons n a brain can be traced,” says Reina, “helping us to understand and identify the general mechanisms underlying psychophysics laws, which may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the human brain.”