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Can We Learn About Democracy From Honeybees?

Can We Learn About Democracy From Honeybees?

An illustration of honeybees swarming from the front cover of Thomas Seeley's book Honeybee Democracy

Don't worry, I'm not about to suggest how you should vote if you're still to visit the polling station on your way home tonight. With tensions running high on this election day, it's worth remembering that we're not the only species who have to work together to make decisions for the benefit of the group. 

Professor Thomas Seeley of Cornell University has spent his life studying honeybees, his book "Honeybee Democracy" describes his research into how these fascinating insects make decisions collectively and democratically when looking for a new home to move to, during swarming season. He finishes his book with some thoughts on how we humans might learn from their ways. As Seeley points out, honeybees have been working as a colony for over 30 million years so they must be getting something right! And he's even tried his ideas out on his colleagues at Cornell, when he was head of department.

Our parliament is based on the idea that many minds are better than one for making big decisions, as is the process of decision making amongst the sub-section of honeybees in the colony known as scout bees. Thomas Seeley has come up with 5 lessons on democracy from the honeybees:

Lesson 1: The individuals in the decision-making group should have shared interests and mutual respect

Honeybees have a strong common interest in working together and making collective decisions, as Seeley writes: "Biologists now understand that the genetic success of each worker bee in a honeybee colony depends on the fate of the entire colony; no individual bee succeeds unless the whole colony survives and reproduces." 

Unlike honeybees, we're not reliant on only our queen having children to continue our society, so our focus is somewhat different. However, time spent building common ground and fostering mutual respect in our communities can help to ease the way for collective decision making. 

Lesson 2: Minimise the leader's influence on the group's thinking

Interestingly, whilst the queen bee is the reproductive centre of the community, she doesn't make the decisions. Honeybees choose their new home without one leader bee deciding. 

"By operating without a leader, the scout bees of a swarm neatly avoid one of the greatest threats to good decision making by groups: a domineering leader. Such an individual reduces a group's collective power to uncover a diverse set of possible solutions to a problem..."

Lesson 3: Seek diverse solutions to the problem

It almost goes without saying that a group has more resources and more varied experience than one individual when looking for solutions to a problem. Hundreds of house-hunting scout bees search out potential spaces for a new colony home, looking in tree hollows and holes in walls. I even heard recently that a colony chose to move into an old abandoned arm chair amongst the springs!

The scout bees communicate their findings to the rest of the hive through the waggle dance: "I've found a great house ladies, no. 29, 500m down Flora street, about 10 minutes flight from here". Wouldn't it be amazing if our parliament was a series of politicians throwing their moves down in a dance off? 

The take home message, according to Thomas Seeley, is that like the bees we humans need to keep the dance floor open for lots of opinions so that we get the best possible solutions, without too much initial judgement of what those dance moves look like.  

Honeybees performing a waggle dance to convince other scout bees to look at a potential nest site

Honeybees performing waggle dances to convince other scout bees to consider a potential nesting site.

Lesson 4: Bring the group's knowledge together through debate

If an undecided scout bee feels impressed by the strength of argument of another scout bee's impassioned dance advertising a potential nesting site, then they will go and look at it themselves. Only after they have visited it and done their own survey of the real estate will they too dance to advertise the same nesting site. Seeley argues that because the scout bees individually go and assess nest sites themselves before making their decision a good decision is made, rather than individuals making up their mind based on what the neighbour is saying and making poorly informed decisions.

So let's have open debate, communicate widely with each other so people know where to go to check out the facts themselves and once people have made their own opinion they too can communicate it with others. 

Lesson 5: Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed

When you're a swarm of honeybees hanging off of a branch at the mercy of the British weather you need to balance democratic debate with timely decision making. In studying the honeybees Seeley discovered that once the number of honeybees advocating for a particular nest site through their waggle dances reached a certain threshold then the house move was set in motion to that site. The scout bees make piping noises signalling for the other honeybees to warm up their flight muscles ready for the move. 

So there is a balance between a period of intense debate and information gathering and decisive collective action once a threshold of agreement is met. So whatever the election result is tomorrow morning, we'll need to work together just like the bees. 


 If you need some light relief from politics, come and join us next Wednesday evening to taste honeys, talk bees and toast the summer with honey based tipples. Book here.

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