House hunting honey bees: speed-accuracy trade-offs in collective decision-making


In this project we will investigate how different nest-site requirements have shaped collective decision-making processes in two species of honey bee.


Professor Madeleine Beekman

Research Location

School of Biological Sciences

Program Type



Making decisions is difficult. Making the correct decision is even more difficult. To make the best decision possible, one needs complete information about the issue to be decided. This is almost always impossible. Most decisions are time constrained and the collection, processing and evaluation of information requires time so that a decision must be made without exhaustively exploring all alternatives. Yet an incorrect decision can result in a severe penalty.

The tension between speed and accuracy has been termed the speed-accuracy trade-off paradigm. Humans often actively choose a compromise between speed and accuracy. For example, in typing this I have chosen a speed that does not lead to too many mistakes and is appropriate to the task in hand and the knowledge that I will review the resulting text. Our societies are replete with speed-accuracy trade-offs, most of which are more important than the number of mistakes I make while typing. Consider the task of an ambulance dispatcher with limited information. Delaying sending multiple units to a major accident may jeopardise lives, whereas sending more than is necessary may result in a shortage when another accident happens. Thus we constantly need to decide between making a rapid but perhaps inaccurate decision and gathering more information at the expense of speed. But many non-human natural decision-making systems do not have this human ability to assess and adjust the relative importance of speed and accuracy. In this project we will study how natural selection has tuned the trade-off between speed and accuracy in two species of honey bee. The cavity-nesting Apis mellifera makes slow but accurate decisions whereas open-nesting A. florea’s decisions are fast at the expense of accuracy.

Additional Information

The above described project is only one example. I am interested in supervising any student who is interested in behavioural ecology using social insects as model system. Projects can also have a lab component, for example by including microsatellite data to infer paternity or maternity. Such a project will be co-supervised by Ben Oldroyd (School of Biological Sciences). Other possibilities include combining behavioural studies with mathematical modelling in collaboration with Mary Myerscough (School of Mathematics and Statistics).

The Behaviour and Genetics of Social Insects Lab offers top-up scholarships to PhD students. For students interested in a project that combines biology and mathematics, top-up scholarships are available via the Centre for Mathematical Biology.

Our lab is well funded and we encourage students to attend national and international conferences. Our students are also encouraged to participate in one of our many international collaborations. We collaborate with researchers in Thailand, South Africa, Sweden, Germany and Japan.

Check our web site ( for current projects and our research interests.

Projects can also be tailored to Honours students.

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social insects, honey bees, Apis mellifera, Apis florea, nest-site selection, decentralized decision-making

Opportunity ID

The opportunity ID for this research opportunity is: 703

Other opportunities with Professor Madeleine Beekman