Insects that live in colonies—ants, bees, wasps, termites—have long fascinated everyone from naturalists to artists. Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian poet, once wrote, “What is it that governs here? What is it that issues orders, foresees the future, elaborates plans and preserves equilibrium?” These, indeed, are puzzling questions.
Each insect in a colony seems to have its own agenda, and yet the group as a whole appears to be highly organized. Apparently the seamless integration of all individual activities does not require any supervision. In fact, scientists who study the behavior of social insects have found that cooperation at the colony level is largely self-organized: in numerous situations the coordination arises from interactions among individuals. Although these interactions might be simple (one ant merely following the trail left by another), together they can solve difficult problems (finding the shortest route among countless possible paths to a food source). This collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence.”
A growing community of researchers has been devising new ways of applying swarm intelligence to diverse tasks. The foraging of ants has led to a novel method for rerouting network traffic in busy telecommunications systems. The cooperative interaction of ants working to build their nests leads to more effective control algorithms for groups of robots. The way in which insects cluster their colony's dead and sort their larvae can aid in analyzing banking data. And the division of labor among honeybees could help streamline assembly lines in factories.