Collective defense of honeybee colonies: experimental results and theoretical modeling

14 Oct 2020  ·  Andrea López-Incera, Morgane Nouvian, Katja Ried, Thomas Müller, Hans J. Briegel ·

Social insect colonies routinely face large vertebrate predators, against which they need to mount a collective defense. To do so, honeybees use an alarm pheromone that recruits nearby bees into mass stinging of the perceived threat. This alarm pheromone is carried directly on the stinger, hence its concentration builds up during the course of the attack. Here, we investigate how individual bees react to different alarm pheromone concentrations, and how this evolved response-pattern leads to better coordination at the group level. We first present an individual dose-response curve to the alarm pheromone, obtained experimentally. Second, we apply Projective Simulation to model each bee as an artificial learning agent that relies on the pheromone concentration to decide whether to sting or not. If the emergent collective performance benefits the colony, the individual reactions that led to it are enhanced via reinforcement learning, thus emulating natural selection. Predators are modeled in a realistic way so that the effect of factors such as their resistance, their killing rate or their frequency of attacks can be studied. We are able to reproduce the experimentally measured response-pattern of real bees, and to identify the main selection pressures that shaped it. Finally, we apply the model to a case study: by tuning the parameters to represent the environmental conditions of European or African bees, we can predict the difference in aggressiveness observed between these two subspecies.

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