Jul 01 2011

Rational ‘bee’havior

Economists make several assumptions about humans, a fundamental assumption being that we are rational decision makers, able to weight costs and benefits of our actions and pursue the option that maximizes our benefits and minimizes our costs, thus leading to the greatest personal happiness, or utility. Only if this assumption holds true does a free market economic system, made up of individuals pursuing their own interests lead to a socially beneficial outcome. 

But are humans the only animal driven by rational, self-interested, benefit maximizing and cost minimizing behavior? Is our ability to make the right decision based on a complex set of options and variables made possible by our large brain and hundreds of thousands of years of adaptation? To some extent, our biology must drive our decision making and therefore the institutions and organizations that have allowed our species to thrive. But let us not think we are the only species to have thrived due to our rationality.

If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered to what extent animals can think. I have a dog, and after five years I still can’t figure out if he really likes me or if he has just learned that I’m the one who feeds him and scratches his belly, so he demonstrates the behaviors that offer the greatest rewards in terms of food and attention, and those behaviors are ones that I enjoy about him. It is a win win relationship, for sure, but is his behavior evidence of rationality, or just his biological need for food and attention? Is my dog’s behavior the outcome of a series of rational, self-interested calculations, or is it something more simple we usually associate with animal behavior: instinct?

Rationality may be as much a biological instict as an economic one. A recent study out of the UK has found that bumble bees are able to make rational decisions based on complex sets of options to mimimize costs and maximize benefits, much as humans must do countless times every day.

When deciding which flowers to fly to when collecting nectar, a bee must consider two variables: distance and the amount of nectar available in a particular flower. Of course, the distance the bee must fly represents the cost of collecting the nectar, and the amount of nectar in the flower is the benefit of having flown to it. The report explains: 

“Computers solve it (the problem of which flower to fly to) by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve simple versions of it without computer assistance using a brain the size of grass seed.”

The team set up a bee nest-box, marking each bumblebee with numbered tags to follow their behaviour when allowed to visit five artificial flowers which were arranged in a regular pentagon.

“When the flowers all contain the same amount of nectar bees learned to fly the shortest route to visit them all,” said Dr Lihoreau. “However, by making one flower much more rewarding than the rest we forced the bees to decide between following the shortest route or visiting the most rewarding flower first.”

In a feat of spatial judgement the bees decided that if visiting the high reward flower added only a small increase in travel distance, they switched to visiting it first. However, when visiting the high reward added a substantial increase in travel distance they did not visit it first.

The results revealed a trade-off between either prioritising visits to high reward flowers or flying the shortest possible route. Individual bees attempted to optimise both travel distance and nectar intake as they gained experience of the flowers.

“We have demonstrated that bumblebees make a clear trade-off between minimising travel distance and prioritising high rewards when considering routes with multiple locations,” concluded co-author Professor Lars Chittka. “These results provide the first evidence that animals use a combined memory of both the location and profitability of locations when making complex routing decisions, giving us a new insight into the spatial strategies of trap-lining animals.”

In economics, we refer to the behavior descibed above as cost, benefit analysis. It surprised me to read that insects, when faced with a trade off between further distance and more nectar, weigh both the cost and the benefit, and pursue the action that maximizes their profit, which is the bee’s case is a function of both distance of the flower and quantity or nectar collected.

Humans and our institutions make similar cost, benefit calculations. A business produces a quantity of output and sells it for a price that maximizes the difference between the price at which it can sell its product for and the average cost of production, thus maximizing its profits. A consumer will purchase a combination of goods and services at which the amount of utility per dollar is equalized across the various goods consumed, thus maximizing the consumer’s total utility

Bees, with their brains the size of a grass seed, weigh variables nearly as complex as those weighed by businesses and individuals in their economic decisions. Are bees rational? Or is their behavior purely biological instinct?


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Rational ‘bee’havior”

  1. steveon 05 Jul 2011 at 4:00 am

    I think bees and other animals and humans are rational in the sense that they make trade offs using the available information to maximise the benefits. I don't think concious calculation of these trade offs is common even among humans. Nor do I think every decision performs these calculations in a manner that economics would call a success among either humans or animals just that evolution reduces the number of these failed cases over time.

  2. Tugceon 07 Aug 2011 at 10:36 am

    Hello. I am currently an ib student also and i have some questions about my extended essay which is based on Economics. I tried to find your e-mail on the website but could not thus i was wondering if you can send me your e-mail. I really would like to discuss my ideas with you. Thank you for your time.

  3. Jason Welkeron 12 Aug 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Hello Tugce,
    I would encourage you to speak with your IB Economics teacher, your EE supervisor, or your IB coordinator about EE subject choice and writing your EE. Since I am not any of these, I cannot help you with this assignment, sorry!
    Jason