Other companies also have profited by imitating ants. In Italy and Switzerland, fleets of trucks carrying milk and dairy products, heating oil, and groceries all use ant-foraging rules to find the best routes for deliveries. In England and France, telephone companies have made calls go through faster on their networks by programming messages to deposit virtual pheromones at switching stations, just as ants leave signals for other ants to show them the best trails.
In the U.S., Southwest Airlines has tested an ant-based model to improve service at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. With about 200 aircraft a day taking off and landing on two runways and using gates at three concourses, the company wanted to make sure that each plane got in and out as quickly as possible, even if it arrived early or late.
"People don't like being only 500 yards away from a gate and having to sit out there until another aircraft leaves," says Doug Lawson of Southwest. So Lawson created a computer model of the airport, giving each aircraft the ability to remember how long it took to get into and away from each gate. Then he set the model in motion to simulate a day's activity.
"The planes are like ants searching for the best gate," he says. But rather than leaving virtual pheromones along the way, each aircraft remembers the faster gates and forgets the slower ones. After many simulations, using real data to vary arrival and departure times, each plane learned how to avoid an intolerable wait on the tarmac. Southwest was so pleased with the outcome, it may use a similar model to study the ticket counter area.
When it comes to swarm intelligence, ants aren't the only insects with something useful to teach us. On a small, breezy island off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what's best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives.
During the past decade, Seeley, Kirk Visscher of the University of California, Riverside, and others have been studying colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera) to see how they choose a new home. In late spring, when a hive gets too crowded, a colony normally splits, and the queen, some drones, and about half the workers fly a short distance to cluster on a tree branch. There the bees bivouac while a small percentage of them go searching for new real estate. Ideally, the site will be a cavity in a tree, well off the ground, with a small entrance hole facing south, and lots of room inside for brood and honey. Once a colony selects a site, it usually won't move again, so it has to make the right choice.