Swarm intelligence and super-organisms

Swarm intelligence is a research area dealing with the way both artificial and natural self-organised systems work. The concept was first developed in the late 80s. Nature offers many examples of self-organised systems; flocks of birds, schools of fish, ants and bees’ colonies and so on.

Another distinctive feature of these systems is that every unit – be it a microrobot or an insect – has limited abilities and very few information about the overall structure. Why? There is no need for them to know it all. As a consequence, none of these units can supervise the others. Each unit simply executes a series of behaviours that influence the other units. Because of that, the whole system can self-organise by itself. Control structures are not needed.

Swarm intelligence makes systems more flexible and robust. That’s quite an advantage for both animals and insects, and it can improve groups’ performance when it comes to searching and carrying food, taking care of larvae, dividing the workload and building the nest.

Focusing our attention on bees’ colonies, we can see how their social structure is made up of castes that help coordinating their efforts. Most of the times we will only find one queen bee per colony. She is the only fertile female bee. But do not get fooled by its title. It is linked to the fact that she gives birth to all of the bees in the colony. It has very little to do with a hierarchical power structure.

Forming new colonies

Swarm intelligence is closely related to swarming. This fascinating phenomenon takes place whenever a colony divides in order to create a new one. The queen bee leaves the hive together with a large group of worker bees. They all cluster together on a nearby branch and wait there while a smaller number of worker bees look for a suitable place where to build a new colony. Most times this process happens during spring time. It can result from hive’s overpopulation or the birth of new queen bees.

Once the swarm clusters, it can well protect itself both wind and rain. Such resilience was observed in a study published on the journal Nature Physics in 2018. The authors noted how the swarm was capable of adapting to the external environment. They tried shaking the branch on which the cluster gathered. Horizontal shakes led the cluster to change its shape by spreading out in a flatter conical form. This would better divide the strain on individual bees, giving the cluster more stability. This proves that bees’ colonies are true super-organisms.