This paper compares the performance of three swarm intelligence algorithms for the optimization of hard engineering problems. The algorithms tested were bacterial foraging optimization (BFO), particle swarm optimization (PSO), and artificial bee colony (ABC). Besides the regular BFO, two other variants reported in the literature were also included in the study: adaptive BFO and swarming BFO. Both PSO and ABC were tested using the regular algorithm and variants that include explosion (mass extinction). Three optimization problems of structural engineering were used: minimization of the cost of a welded beam, minimization of the construction cost of a pressure vessel, and minimization of the total weight of a 10-bar plane truss. All problems are strongly constrained. The algorithms were evaluated using two criteria: quality of solutions and the number of function evaluations. The results show that PSO presented the best balance between these two criteria. For the optimization problems approached in this paper, we can also conclude that the explosion procedure resulted in no significant improvements. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.