Ask A Scientist

How does the queen bee know what’s going on in the hive?

Asked by: Botan Zebari
School: Jennie F Snapp Middle School, Endicott
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Kizis
Hobbies/Interests: soccer, basketball, football
Career Interest: neurosurgeon

Answer from Hiroki Sayama

Assistant professor, Binghamton University

Professor Sayama\'s research includes studies on complex systems, artificial life, mathematical biology, computer and information sciences. He received his PhD from the University of Tokyo. His interests include traveling, walking, and swimming.

This is a very interesting question, especially because you asked “How.” So you think the queen bee knows how things go in the hive and controls her castle? This is quite a natural observation, because those bees look very well orchestrated to work together for the common good in the hive, just like our human society. We have people who are responsible for monitoring and maintaining our communities, such as principals, mayors, and the President. So things must be the same in a colony of those social insects too. Well, in fact, the mechanism that organizes the bees’ society is quite different from that of our society. So the answer to your question is, the queen bee knows nearly NOTHING about what’s going on in the hive. Moreover, there is no single individual anywhere in the hive that directs the operation of the whole colony. The role of the queen bee in the hive is not even remotely close to what people would imagine from the words like “queen” or “king”. Biologically, she is the mother of all the workers (female bees) and drones (male bees) in the hive, and laying eggs is the only thing she does for her entire life. Other worker bees usually don’t lay eggs, so the queen bee is often considered a specialized “reproductive organ” of the whole hive, a “super-organism” made of many individual bees. Then, how are those worker bees organized so nicely that they can collaborate to build hives, collect and distribute honey and pollen, and raise their larvae as a community? This question has attracted lots of attention from many scientists for hundreds of years. While details still remain unclear, research has provided more and more evidences showing that those social insects achieve complex tasks in a distributed way, without any central controller. Each individual insect acts following simple behavioral rules, using locally available information only. A good example is division of labor. There are many different jobs in a beehive that need to be done, such as cleaning, nursing, construction, defense, and foraging. Most worker bees usually go through a series of different jobs in their lifetime as they get older, but they are also able to change their jobs flexibly so that the number of workers engaged in each job is always maintained at the most efficient level. How do they do this? There are several theories developed to explain such division of labor among social insects. A typical mechanism works as follows: If there is a shortage or a surplus of workers for a specific task, it will generate some local stimulus, which could be waiting time, a pile of unprocessed stuff, a chemical signal (pheromone) secreted by a worker who noticed the problem, etc. When another worker perceives the stimulus, she may change her job to the one it indicates. This recruits more workers working on the task in demand, and once there are enough workers for it, the stimulus is no longer generated so the number of workers remains more or less constant. There is no leader necessary in this process: Everything is done through individual worker bees’ decisions and actions, and still the labor is nicely divided among worker bees as a whole. Such a highly distributed mechanism in the populations of social insects and other animals is often referred to as “collective intelligence”. It tells us that a macro-level decision may be made efficiently through a number of micro-level decisions making by interacting individuals who don’t know much about what’s going on in the system they belong to. Today, a number of interdisciplinary research groups are working hard, nationally as well as internationally, to understand the dynamics of complex systems that show such collective intelligence. This is not only because it is scientifically important, but also because it will be useful for engineering, organization management, and social/political decision making needed for our human society.  

Last Updated: 3/1/17