Did You See This?

How Honey Bee Hives Changed the Internet

This is the kind of federally funded breakthrough imperiled under the Trump administration.

More than a decade ago, engineers John Bartholdi, Craig Tovey, and John Vande Vate became interested in bees. How exactly did a colony organize thousands of foragers to collect all the nectar needed to survive the winter? If the bees were to hire the engineers as consultants, could they improve on nature? To find out, they joined forces with honey bee researcher Thomas Seeley, painstakingly labeling and monitoring 4,000 bees in his upstate New York study colony.

What they discovered, as described in this video from the National Science Foundation, was the “honey bee algorithm,” a process that enables bee colonies to shift efficiently from depleted flower patches to full ones. It’s not what the would-be bee consultants would have suggested. It was better.

This was fascinating enough. But such efficiency didn’t just apply to hives. Some 15 years after the bee research, a computer scientist named Sunil Nakrani was searching for an algorithm that would make switching internet traffic between servers more efficient. It turned out the algorithm bees use to maximize their haul of nectar also works to optimize variable flows of internet data, proving up to 20 percent more efficient than competing algorithms. According to Tovey, at least one company that began using the Honey Bee Algorithm in late 2008 maximized its haul of web hosting revenue rather than honey.

The use of honey bee hive logic in the buzzing circuitry of the internet earned the original four investigators and Sunil a 2016 Golden Goose Award, which recognizes federally funded basic science that winds up having a big real-world impact.

The award is a counterpoint to the infamous Golden Fleece Award of former Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat who, in the ’70s and ’80s, bestowed this dubious recognition on federally funded researchers he believed had wasted taxpayer money. Often this was basic research Proxmire felt was strange, obscure or lacked an evident purpose. But as the surprise use of the honey bee algorithm shows, it’s impossible to anticipate which lines of inquiry will lead to the big payoff. Scientists must simply follow their curiosity and do good, rigorous science.

Keep that in mind over the next four years under the Trump administration. Trump has already been hailed as the first “anti-science” president, and the Republican-controlled Congress has in the past showed a hostile attitude toward science.

In 2016, Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican chairman of the House Science Committee, pushed legislation that would have required the National Science Foundation to prove research is “in the national interest” before issuing grants.* Examples of science “not in the national interest” proffered by Smith are straight from Proxmire’s playbook. When describing the bill, Smith mocked research into Viking-era textiles and the ancient Mayan salt industry. The bill didn’t become law, but given Smith’s history as a hostile critic of the science that shows climate change is real, it seems fair to assume that his true target had little to do with salt or fabric.

That kind of thinking may now be a bigger threat than ever. Given Trump’s selective embrace of space exploration over NASA’s climate monitoring, the president seems more fascinated with the “trappings of science” than with the rigorous research that yields them, as science writer Sarah Zang put it. The unique story of the honey bee algorithm is a reminder of what we stand to lose if we turn away from such research. If you don’t feed the Golden Goose, one day there will be no more golden eggs—and that’s to the detriment of everyone, no matter their politics.

*Correction, Feb. 22, 2017: This post originally stated that a bill that would have required the National Science Foundation to prove its research was “in the national interest” passed the House this month. The legislation was proposed in February 2016 and never became law.