The hidden cost of information in collective foraging

FX Dechaume-Moncharmont, A. Dornhaus, A. I. Houston, J. M. McNamara, E. J. Collins and N. R. Franks
Many animals nest or roost colonially. At the start of a potential foraging period, they may set out independently or await information from returning foragers. When should such individuals act independently and when should they wait for information? In a social insect colony, for example, information transfer may greatly increase a recruit’s probability of finding food, and it is commonly assumed that this will always increase the colony’s net energy gain. We test this assumption with a mathematical model. Energy gain by a colony is a function both of the probability of finding food sources and of the duration of their availability. A key factor is the ratio of pro-active foragers to re-active foragers. When leaving the nest, pro-active foragers search for food independently, whereas re-active foragers rely on information from successful foragers to find food. Under certain conditions, the optimum strategy is totally independent (pro-active) foraging because potentially valuable information that re-active foragers may gain from successful foragers is not worth waiting for. This counter-intuitive outcome is remarkably robust over a wide range of parameters. It occurs because food sources are only available for a limited period. Our study emphasizes the importance of time constraints and the analysis of dynamics, not just steady states, to understand social insect foraging.

Some key words:
collective foraging, optimal foraging, information transfer, recruitment, division of labour, social insect