Scientist’s Talk Examines Brainy Honeybees

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FRANK STEPHENSON
SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT

Just how smart are honeybees? Scientists already know they are some of the cleverest insects on earth, capable of recognizing landmarks and different colors — and even smells — for navigation.

But it turns out that bee biologists are now discovering that the buzzing little critters are far brighter than scientists ever realized. The new findings are putting honeybees’ critical roles in nature and agriculture into an intriguing new perspective, scientists say.

One of the foremost honeybee ecologists in the country, Tom Seeley of Cornell University, says that while individual bees are astonishingly clever — given the fact that their brains may be the size of a few grains of sand — they really show their stuff when they organize into swarms.

Seeley has found that when they come together, honeybees generate a new, higher intelligence. This collective, advanced IQ — so to speak — gives the bees amazing power to select the right places to build their nests and raise their young, a constant life-or-death decision in the honeybee world.

Seeley will present his latest findings, along with signing copies of his just-released fourth book, on April 28 at the IMAX Theater inside the Challenger Learning Center downtown. The presentation is the third in the annual HORIZONS spring speaker series sponsored by the Tallahassee Scientific Society, a local nonprofit group.

Swarms as small as 300 individuals generate the ability to quickly assess the suitability of various options for home-building, Seeley said. In doing that literally on the fly, bees engage in collective fact-finding, open sharing of information, vigorous debate and even fair voting, he’s found.

“With the right organization, a group of bees can overcome the cognitive limitations of their individual members and achieve a high collective IQ,” he said. “By examining natural systems that have evolved this ability, we can begin to understand how to endow human groups with collective intelligence.”

For the country’s legion of bee lovers, Seeley is best known for his books, “The Wisdom of the Hive” (Princeton, 1996) and “Honeybee Democracy” (Princeton Press, 2010). His newest book released by Princeton this spring is “Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.” Seeley’s major professor at Harvard, the preeminent naturalist and ant biologist E.O. Wilson, has described the book as “a delightful foray into the pastime of bee hunting…that vividly describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it.”

Seeley’s talk begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, but doors to the Challenger Center will open at 6. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance by visiting the Society’s website at www.TallySci.org. Cost is $8 for members and $15 for non-members.

The 2016 HORIZONS series, which began in 2012, concludes May 25 with a presentation by Ken Ford, founder and chief executive officer for the Pensacola-based Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. A computer scientist, Ford will present “The Wright Brothers Revisited: Climbing Aloft on the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Wing.” The talk will address the rise of super-smart robots in all walks of life and what this phenomenon may mean for society.

If you go

What: Tom Seeley of Cornell University talk on IQ of honeybees

When: 7 p.m. Thursday. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: Challenger Center, Kleman Plaza

Cost: $8 for members and $15 for non-members. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance by visiting the Society’s website at www.TallySci.org.

Article via Tallahassee Democrat