Bee Colonies Behave Like the Human Brain, Study Finds

On the face of it, bee colonies and the human brain don't appear to have much in common.

However, a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has found that when bee colonies are examined as a whole—or in other words, they are viewed as a single superorganism—they display behavior that is remarkably similar to how the human brain responds to external stimuli.

The findings could shed light on some of the basic mechanisms of human behavior, according to researchers from the University of Sheffield.

"The term superorganism is used to describe a group of social insects as a unique, complex organism," Andreagiovanni Reina, a research associate in Collective Robotics at the University of Sheffield's computer science department and lead author of the latest study, told Newsweek.

"The single insects are organisms; when a group of these organisms operate in synergy to help each other when surviving, foraging, and reproducing, the group can be considered as a whole—or in other words, a single superorganism," he said.

The researchers applied a theoretical model usually used in psychology to study how honeybees decide on a location for building their nest. They found similarities between how individual bees communicate with one another when making collective decisions and the way neurons—or nerve cells—in the human brain interact.

According to Reina, finding these parallels between bees in a colony and neurons supports the view that bee colonies are a superorganism and, furthermore, demonstrates how the behavior of such superorganisms obeys the same laws that describe the workings of the human brain.

This important insight could help researchers to better understand so-called psychophysical laws, which until now, were thought to only apply to individual organisms.

Bee colonies display behavior that is remarkably similar to the human brain. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

"Psychophysics studies the relationship between the intensity of a stimulus and its perception in the human brain," Reina said. "This relationship has been explained through a set of psychophysical laws that hold in a wide spectrum of sensory domains, such as sound loudness, musical pitch, image brightness, time duration, weight" and others.

"Recently, numerous studies have shown that a wide range of organisms at various levels of complexity also obey these laws," he said.

These laws do not apply to single neurons but to the brain as a whole. Similarly, the new study shows that, while psychophysical laws do not apply to individual bees, they can effectively describe the behavior of a bee colony as a whole.

One of the laws the researchers tested on the bee colonies is known as Weber's Law, which describes how the brain is able to select the best option when deciding between a number of choices, even when there is only a very minimal difference in quality.

This law holds in individual humans, as well as other mammals, fish, birds and insects. "Surprisingly, even organisms without a brain can display such behavior: for instance, slime molds and other unicellular organisms."

Weber's Law has never been successfully investigated at the colony level, according to the researchers. However, the new study found that it could be used to describe the behavior of bee colonies searching for a nest.

Similarly, Reina and his colleagues also tested Piéron's Law, which suggests that the brain can make decisions faster when two options are of high-quality, while it tends to take longer when two choices are of low-quality.

Again, the law could be applied to the bee colonies: the study found that when choosing nest sites, bee colonies were quicker at making decisions between two high-quality nest locations, than between two low-quality sites.

Lastly, the team also tested Hick's Law, which states that the brain is slower at decision-making when the number of alternative options increases—something the researchers also observed in the bee colonies: The colonies took longer to choose a nest location when the number of alternative nest-sites increased.

Because studying superorganisms, such as bee colonies, is simpler than examining brain neurons, the new findings could help scientists to better understand the principles underpinning such laws.