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A Honey of an Idea



In 1988, Professor John Vande Vate heard a researcher describing the organization of work in honey bee colonies on NPR. He and his colleagues used their systems engineering expertise to model honey bee behavior with an algorithm that is also the most efficient way of routing internet traffic.


A study of how honey bees forage for food has led to development of an algorithm that major web-hosting companies are using to streamline internet services. The project also has attracted a national award for the Georgia Tech team that conducted the research.

John Bartholdi III, Craig Tovey, and John Vande Vate — researchers in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) — are part of an interdisciplinary team that has received the 2016 Golden Goose Award. The award honors scientists whose federally funded work may have been considered silly, odd, or obscure when first conducted but has resulted in significant benefits to society.

Along with Cornell University Professor Thomas Seeley and data scientist Sunil Nakrani (who received his M.S. in computer science in 1998 from Georgia Tech), the team studied honey bee foraging behavior and then developed the Honey Bee Algorithm to allocate shared webservers to internet traffic. The original honey bee research, funded by the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research, unexpectedly led to the algorithm.

“The bees turned out to be even smarter than we thought,” Tovey said. The team developed a model for how colonies’ decentralized foraging system works, which Tovey and Nakrani adapted more than a decade later to develop the Honey Bee Algorithm for allocating shared web hosting servers to variable internet traffic. Their algorithm beats the competition by up to 20 percent in revenue generation for the web hosts and ensures that servers are providing the applications internet clients need, when they need them.

The team was cited for their curiosity-driven research on how honey bee foragers are able to maximize nectar collection in ever-changing environments.

The Georgia Tech researchers were inspired to study honey bee foraging after Vande Vate heard Seeley describing his own honey bee research on National Public Radio. The broadcast led to a years-long examination of the honey bees’ decentralized foraging patterns from a systems engineering perspective, which led to development of the new algorithm. — Shelley Wunder-Smith


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