Honey Bee Democracy

October 9, 2013

With federal employees on furlough and vital government programs and services on hold, the impact of Washington gridlock is spreading across America. I believe that “honey bee politics” might be able to provide our Congressional leaders with some profound insights about governing. As revealed by the prominent animal behaviorist, Thomas Seeley in his fascinating book, Honeybee Democracy these amazing insects have much to teach humans when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision-making.

Seeley’s book highlights what I believe is a most compelling example of how tens of thousands of insects are able to work together without a leader per se to create a functional entity whose abilities far exceed those of its individuals. Through an in-depth examination of social animal behavior he shows that decision-making groups, whether honeybee or human, can be smarter than even the smartest individuals in them.

It's incredible to me that bees have evolved to practice a complex democratic and instinctive decision making system that guarantees their survival. Their behavior lends credence to the theory that survival of the group and not just survival of the fittest is an evolutionary strategy. Each year a hive of bees must decide whether it needs to identify and migrate to a new home. In order to make this critical decision honey bees participate in communal fact-finding, spirited debate, and finally, strong consensus building. This amazing process all begins in late spring and early summer. If a hive successfully survives the winter and emerges from its months long sequester in good health, it can quickly become overcrowded as the queen lays between 1,000 to 1,500 eggs per day. To relieve the pressure on the hive, a swarm of thousands of bees will depart with the old queen to produce a new colony while the remaining bees will stay behind and bring up a new queen.

Seeley describes how these honey bees assess viable new hive sites, share and promote their discoveries with each other, debate the value of one location over another, select the ultimate site, and then navigate together to their new home. What is particularly notable about this process is that no single scout bee that comes back to the hive with information about a potential new site maintains its entrenched opinion or position indefinitely. Each bee essentially makes its own case during their waggle dance: the more times they perform the dance after first returning to hive, the greater its perceived value. As other scouts go out and evaluate a particular site, they too will come back and advocate (or not) for that site by performing their own waggle dance. Over time, the decision-making process cascades to more and more bees until collectively, the bees reach a unanimous decision about where the migrating colony will swarm to upon leaving the old hive.

In the final chapter, Seeley suggests five lessons we could learn from bees:

1. Constitute a decision-making group of individuals with shared interests.

Admittedly, a hive is the epitome of such a group as all the members of the colony are related and are dependent upon one another for survival.

2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group.

While the queen is at the heart of the hive, she is unaware of her colony's ever-changing labor needs, which the worker bees dependably respond to over time.

3. Seek diverse solutions to problems.

Honey bees organize themselves in such a way that although each bee has limited information and intelligence, each scout bee’s discovery is collectively considered and evaluated in the context of best interest of the hive.

4. Update the group’s knowledge through debate.

Honey bees out perform humans in this regard as each scout’s informational “waggle dance” becomes less effective over time (no matter how good a prospective site would be for a setting up a new hive). In contrast, human stubbornness can lead humans to argue indefinitely.

5. Use quorums to cement solidarity and enact decisions efficiently and faithfully.

Honey bees introduced this brilliant concept long before the ancient Greeks.