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How the humble honeybee could unlock the secrets of the human brain

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THEY are more used to hitting the headlines for their declining numbers - but the humble honeybee is once again coming under the spotlight for an all together different reason.

Academics at the University of Sheffield say the honeybee, which has faced marked decline over the last 50 years, could unlock the secrets of how the human brain works.

Researchers have discovered that colonies, which can contain around 60,000 bees, adhere to the same laws as the brain when making collective decisions.

They say the parallels drawn between the two may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the human brain - and furthermore, studying honeybees could help us better understand the basic mechanisms of human behaviour.

The team, from the University’s Department of Computer Science, studied a theoretical model of how honeybees decide where to build their nest and viewed the bee colony as a single “superorganism” which displays a coordinated response to external stimuli – similar to the human brain.

The study concluded that the way in which bees “speak” with each other and make decisions is comparable to the way the many individual neurons in the human brain interact with each other.

Previous research showed the brains of humans follow rules known as psychophysical laws. Single brain neurons do not obey the laws, but the whole brain does. Similarly, this study found that even if single bees do not obey these laws, the superorganism - the bee colony - does.

The new research suggests that the mechanisms that generate such laws are not only happening in brains as previously thought. This discovery will enable scientists to better understand the basic principles that generate such laws by studying superorganisms such as bees, which is simpler than watching brain neurons in action.

The study also helps us better understand and explore three brain “laws”. Pieron’s Law suggests that the brain is quicker to make decisions when the two options to decide from are of high quality - which was demonstrated by bees making quick decisions between nesting sites.

The bee colonies also appeared to back up, Hick’s Law, which finds that the brain is slower to make decisions when the number of alternative options increases; and Weber’s Law, which finds that the brain is able to select the best quality option when there is a minimum difference between the qualities of the options.

Dr Andreagiovanni Reina, Research Associate in Collective Robotics, said: “This study is exciting because it suggests that honeybee colonies adhere to the same laws as the brain when making collective decisions.

“The study also supports the view of bee colonies as being similar to complete organisms or better still, superorganisms, composed of a large number of fully developed and autonomous individuals that interact with each other to bring forth a collective response.

“With this view in mind, parallels between bees in a colony and neurons in a brain can be traced, helping us to understand and identify the general mechanisms underlying psychophysics laws, which may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the human brain.”

MEPs move to protect bees

MEPS have called for a wide-ranging, long-term “survival strategy” to rebuild Europe’s bee population and improve bee health.

Earlier this month, members of the European Parliament voted in favour of an action plan to combat bee mortality, including a ban on all pesticides with proven negative effects on bee health, and boosting support for beekeepers.

They also called for measures to tighten up checks on fake honey imports to stop the influx of honey that does not meet strict EU standards.

MEP Norbert Erdős said bees were “indispensable” for Europe’s food security.