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Bigger is better: honeybee colonies as distributed information-gathering systems

Matina C. Donaldson-Matasci, Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, Anna Dornhaus
Animal behaviour 2013 v.85 no.3 pp. 585-592
Apis mellifera, honey bees, foraging, bee dances, honey bee colonies
In collectively foraging groups, communication about food resources can play an important role in the organization of the group's activity. For example, the honeybee dance communication system allows colonies to selectively allocate foragers among different floral resources according to their quality. Because larger groups can potentially collect more information than smaller groups, they might benefit more from communication because it allows them to integrate and use that information to coordinate forager activity. Larger groups might also benefit more from communication because it allows them to dominate high-value resources by recruiting large numbers of foragers. By manipulating both colony size and the ability to communicate location information in the dance, we show that larger colonies of honeybees benefit more from communication than do smaller colonies. In fact, colony size and dance communication worked together to improve foraging performance; the estimated net gain per foraging trip was highest in larger colonies with unimpaired communication. These colonies also had the earliest peaks in foraging activity, but not the highest ones. This suggests they may find and recruit to resources more quickly, but not more heavily. The benefits of communication we observed in larger colonies are thus likely a result of more effective information-gathering due to massive parallel search rather than increased competitive ability due to heavy recruitment.