WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kingsport native John Hagood Vande Vate and his colleagues received the so-called “Golden Goose” Award at the Library of Congress Thursday night 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 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, according to a release.
The original honey bee research, funded by the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research, unexpectedly led to the algorithm that major web-hosting companies now use to streamline Internet services and increase revenues in a global market worth more than $50 billion.
Vande Vate, an engineer at Georgia Tech, was cited with his colleagues for their curiosity-driven research on how honey bee foragers are able to maximize nectar collection in ever-changing environments. A decade-plus later, they 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.
“I’d be grateful if you could acknowledge Dr. Diana Trundle’s influence in setting me on the road to scientific curiosity,” Vande Vate said in an email. “As director of Indian Path Hospital’s laboratory, she graciously tutored me in the ways in which the body maintains electrolyte balances. I was graduating high school and starting college at the time. The bees proved a much more easily observed and understood example of a very similar self regulatory mechanism. The risk of a sting may be greater, but bees are easier to count than ions. I am thrilled and honored to be recognized, but want to be sure the credit goes to Dr. Trundle.”
The original idea for the award came from U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, in 2012.
Vande Vate and his colleagues were inspired to study honey bee foraging after Vande Vate heard a description of 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.
The group set up 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 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 research motivated them to continue exploring beyond honey bee foraging and 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.
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. Shared web-hosting 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.