Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cornell professor shows us that bees can teach us a thing or two about democracy

The New York Times calls “Honeybee Democracy,” by Cornell University biologist Thomas D. Seeley, “truly masterly.” The Wall Street Journal recently listed it as one of the five best books ever written on animal survival. In his work, Seeley describes how bee colonies make decisions collectively and democratically — having perfected the business of consensus building over millions of years. He spoke with Post-Standard staff writer Hart Seely.

Somehow, I figured beehives — with the queens and all — were monarchies. They’re democracies?
The queen is really just an egg-laying machine. She doesn’t have much information about what’s going on in the hive. She’s not a decider. ... Democracy means that the power of the group is invested, not in a leader, but in all of the people. That’s what we see with bees. In the book, I focus on how bees choose a new home.
OK, how does bee democracy happen?
A strong colony has split off to become what we call a swarm. So you’ve got about 10,000 bees and one queen. They leave the parental hive, but they haven’t yet chosen a home. They form a bivouac or swarm cluster — a ball of bees, about the size of a soccer ball, hanging in a tree branch.

From there, several hundred scout bees fly out, each one searching independently for a potential home site. You’ve got this big search committee, scouring the countryside. Of the several hundred that fly out, maybe two dozen find potential places — such as cavities in trees, just the right size. They come back and report what they’ve found. When they all return, the debate starts.
How do bees debate?
They advertise what they’ve discovered by means of a dance.
thomas.seeley.JPGThomas Seeley
It’s a little hard to describe. Think of it as a miniaturized re-enactment of her flight from the swarm cluster to the prospective home site. She basically walks across the surface of this swarm cluster, waggling her body back and forth. The direction she walks, essentially, points to the direction of the site. How long she walks, whether it’s one second or five seconds, indicates how far away the site is. It can be miles away. It can be only a few hundred feet. The bees take the direction and distance information, and then fly out and find the site.
... Some bees might be dancing for a site to the east — that might be best. Others might be dancing to advertise a site to the southwest, which isn’t so good. The bees advertising the best site, they’re doing the strongest and most attractive dances. Whichever site attracts a threshold number of bees — a quorum — that site wins this competition. Basically, it’s a popularity contest.
Based on your research, do they always make the right choice?
Ninety to 95 percent of the time, yes. ... It’s a remarkably reliable decision-making process.
Our elections have a lot of negativity. Bees don’t go negative, right?
That’s right. It’s a different way of doing things. The individuals are talking about the goodness of their site. They don’t exaggerate the goodness. It’s all very honest.
Are bees capable of lying?
Well, in principle, any animal could lie. But bees don’t lie, because there’s no advantage to them by misinforming others in the hive. They’re all in one boat together. The hive sinks or swims, so there’s nothing to be gained by one misleading others. The lesson that we can learn is, if you’re part of a committee, it often helps to start discussions by reminding everybody that they all have a strong commonality of interest.

... Bees don’t have to be reminded of that lesson. It’s built into them. It’s part of their biology. It’s not always part of ours.
So everybody in the hive goes along?
The swarm, as a whole, has to go to one place. Everybody abides by the decision. They achieve a consensus. Another thing that bees do very well is making sure they get all options on the table. This decision-making process usually takes about two days, and the first half is devoted to finding possible home sites and coming back to report them. The analogous thing for a committee would be to brainstorm, get all possible options out on the table.

Another lesson would be that, once you’ve got your options on the table, have an open, real competition of ideas. Let people speak openly and freely about the strengths and weaknesses they perceive in each. Often, if people have their interests aligned, the best ideas will rise in popularity and the poorer ones will fade away.
They vote by flying away?
That’s exactly it. They vote with their wings, by flying to the new site.
Ever been stung?
Thousands of times. But not by swarm bees. Even though a swarm looks terrifying, the bees in it are docile. They don’t have anything to defend. I get stung when opening hives. It’s much rougher, when you’re prying open a beehive.
They’ll sting you, but they won’t tell a lie?
Well, why would one lie?

There is no way one bee in a hive can benefit by giving poor information to her hive mates. For each bee, success is dependent upon the whole hive thriving. If she does anything to interfere with the prosperity of the hive, she is hurting herself.
... Bees are fascinating creatures. I think it’s nice to know that things can work, especially in these days when we’re struggling to make our own democracy work. It can work. Democracy is not a flawed concept.