To find out how, Seeley's team applied paint dots and tiny plastic tags to identify all 4,000 bees in each of several small swarms that they ferried to Appledore Island, home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. There, in a series of experiments, they released each swarm to locate nest boxes they'd placed on one side of the half-mile-long (one kilometer) island, which has plenty of shrubs but almost no trees or other places for nests.
In one test they put out five nest boxes, four that weren't quite big enough and one that was just about perfect. Scout bees soon appeared at all five. When they returned to the swarm, each performed a waggle dance urging other scouts to go have a look. (These dances include a code giving directions to a box's location.) The strength of each dance reflected the scout's enthusiasm for the site. After a while, dozens of scouts were dancing their little feet off, some for one site, some for another, and a small cloud of bees was buzzing around each box.
The decisive moment didn't take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.
"It was a race," Seeley says. "Which site was going to build up 15 bees first?"
Scouts from the chosen box then spread through the swarm, signaling that it was time to move. Once all the bees had warmed up, they lifted off for their new home, which, to no one's surprise, turned out to be the best of the five boxes.
The bees' rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices—so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.
"I've applied what I've learned from the bees to run faculty meetings," he says. To avoid going into a meeting with his mind made up, hearing only what he wants to hear, and pressuring people to conform, Seeley asks his group to identify all the possibilities, kick their ideas around for a while, then vote by secret ballot. "It's exactly what the swarm bees do, which gives a group time to let the best ideas emerge and win. People are usually quite amenable to that."
In fact, almost any group that follows the bees' rules will make itself smarter, says James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. "The analogy is really quite powerful. The bees are predicting which nest site will be best, and humans can do the same thing, even in the face of exceptionally complex decisions." Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups, he says, if their members are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting, auctioning, or averaging to reach a collective decision.