John J. Bartholdi III, Sunil Nakrani, Thomas D. Seeley, Craig A. Tovey, and John Hagood Vande Vate will receive the Golden Goose Award on Sept. 22 for their study of honey bee foraging behavior and the development of the “Honey Bee Algorithm” to allocate shared web servers to internet traffic. The original honey bee research, funded by the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research, unexpectedly led to the algorithm that major webhosting companies now use to streamline internet services and increase revenues in a global market worth more than $50 billion.
The Golden Goose 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. Bartholdi, Tovey, and Vande Vate, all engineers at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Seeley, a Cornell University biologist, are being cited for their curiosity-driven research on how honey bee foragers are able to maximize nectar collection in ever-changing environments. A decade-plus later, Tovey and Nakrani, also an engineer, adapted the basic research to develop the “Honey Bee Algorithm” for allocating shared web servers to changing internet traffic. The algorithm performs up to 20 percent more efficiently than others and distributes web transactions to servers more smoothly and quickly for users.
“The internet is one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, and these scientists studied one of the smallest parts of nature to make it better,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who had the original idea to create the Golden Goose Award. “Their ingenuity is the kind of talent that makes America’s scientific and research community the best in the world.”
The Georgia Institute of Technology engineers and Cornell University biologist will be honored along with two other teams at the fifth annual Golden Goose Award Ceremony at the Library of Congress on Sept. 22. Descriptions of this year’s other winners, as well as those from previous years, can be found at the Golden Goose Award website.
“The idea that honeybees and assigning computer servers have anything in common would have previously sounded preposterous to most, and yet, through the work of these men, we now know that honeybees are ingrained with a superior set of engineering skills,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), a supporter of the Golden Goose Award since its founding in 2012. “These distinguished gentlemen understood that scientific innovation requires creativity, patience, and a determination to get results. I applaud their work on the ‘Honey Bee Algorithm’ to demonstrate that seemingly unrelated ideas can work together and to help make our ever-increasingly networked society run better and more efficiently.”
Bartholdi, Tovey, and Vande Vate were inspired to study honey bee foraging after Vande Vate heard Seeley describing his own honey bee research on National Public Radio. “I wonder if the bees would do any better if they hired us as consultants?” Vande Vate mused to his colleagues after hearing the program. The tongue-in-cheek question led to a years-long examination of the honey bees’ decentralized foraging patterns from a systems engineering perspective.
“Investing in research and development leads to new discoveries that improve our lives, and also creates jobs and helps to keep our country competitive,” said Rep. Bonamici (D-OR), a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and co-founder of the Congressional STEAM Caucus. “Just as we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, we shouldn’t judge research projects by their titles. The Honey Bee Algorithm is an excellent example of how federally funded research can lead to creative approaches to solving problems.”
After three years of developing a mathematical model based on honey bee foraging behavior, Tovey joined Seeley for an empirical test of their model at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station in upstate New York. There, the scientists set up a controlled experiment where they were able to track 4,000 individually labeled forager bees as they moved to and from artificial nectar sources. The experiment beautifully confirmed the model, showing that the bees had evolved to distribute themselves in such a way that each forager bee gathers nectar at roughly the same rate over time and ensures the hive can adapt to changing nectar resources.
The biological research motivated Bartholdi, Tovey, and Vande Vate to continue exploring beyond honey bee foraging, looking for ways that nature’s self-organizing systems could be applied to human problems. Since they published their work on honey bees in 1993, the engineers have brought nature’s lessons to bear on problems ranging from managing online retail orders from distribution centers to dispatching transit buses efficiently to avoid the bunching familiar to public transit users.
Tovey, in particular, sought to apply the work on honey bee foraging to a variety of problems, but it wasn’t until then graduate student Nakrani walked into his office in 2002 talking about web-hosting computer servers that he settled on a perfect application.
In web-hosting, servers perform like nectar foraging bees. Clients asking to use the servers – internet shoppers for example – mimic the changing landscape of flower patches. The clients put up money, earning revenue for the web host, while the flowers provide nectar. Shared webhosting servers operate by switching from one application to the next based on demand for any given application. Each server, for security reasons, can run only one application at a time, so switching applications – like a honey bee finding a new flower patch – requires down time and incurs a revenue penalty as the server shifts and loads a new application. The ideal algorithm adjusts to rapidly changing internet demand and delivers the maximum total revenue – just like honey bee colonies foraging for nectar.
Today, major web-hosting companies are using Tovey and Nakrani’s Honey Bee Algorithm and other similar biologically-inspired methods to boost revenues and more efficiently allocate their servers. Every internet user benefits when servers are ready in the right place and in the shortest time.
About the Golden Goose Award
In 2012, a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations created the Golden Goose Award, conceived by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) as a strong counterpoint to criticisms of basic research as wasteful federal spending such as the late Sen. William Proxmire’s (D-WI) Golden Fleece Award. Learn more at http://www.goldengooseaward.org/history/.