Constitution Daily

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Honeybee Democracy: What our gov’t can learn from honeybees

April 25, 2011 by Carl Flatow


Beekeeper and blogger Carl Flatow joined the National Constitution Center this Earth Day to explore the ways in which nature can teach us about government, as he showcases the connections between honeybee colonies and the democratic process.

One of the reasons we study animal behavior is to add perspective to the understanding of human behavior. Prof. Tom Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been studying the decision making processes of honeybees for many years. His most recent book, published last year, is entitled Honeybee Democracy. In this book, Prof. Seeley compares honeybee decision processes with human decision processes, based on the how the bees evaluate a prospective new home site.

The process involves the actions of a specialized group -- the scout bees, within the community of a house-hunting swarm of honeybees. To select the best place for this community of bees to make their new home the scouts fly out to search for a home site with a very clear set of qualities. Individual scouts explore the prospective site, evaluate it and come back to the waiting group to campaign for other scout bees to check out what they've found.

What they report to the waiting scouts includes, not only directions to the site, but also a level of enthusiasm regarding their judgement about how well the given site measures up to the ideal.

In this process, the enthusiasm they communicate will have an effect on their recruitment efforts. The more enthusiastic they are as a result of finding a higher quality site candidate, the longer and stronger their famous direction waggle-dance will be, which will translate into convincing more scouts to check out that site, themselves, and report back in the same way. More enthusiastic dancers yields more converts.

One of the reasons we study animal behavior is to add perspective to the understanding of human behavior.
More converts leads to an increasing number of enthusiastic dancers, dancing simultaneously and converting more scouts, until a critical mass is reached on the best site choice for the group, based on quality.

This is a template for a powerful one-to-many recruitment process leading to consensus. It is very important to point out that no bee will campaign unless they have visited and evaluated the site for themselves. The only goal of campaigning is to convince a fellow scout to evaluate -- not to decide based on others' evaluation.

A key component of this process, is that the scouts' enthusiasm naturally trails off over time until eventually all scouts will cease to recruit for a given site after a time. But, when a scout discovers a high quality site and she comes back to do a very enthusiastic dance it will take significantly longer for this behavior to extinguish over time, than it will in a scout that started off with less enthusiasm. The result is that with the higher quality site the recruitment rate of scouts wins out over the extinction rate, while with the lower quality sites the rate of extinction wins out, until no scouts are returning to or recruiting for the inferior sites.

In contrast, as we have seen all too often among humans, individuals tend to campaign for their choice with the goal of recruiting voters to their camp. Competing camps grow, recruits seldom change their mind, and the process continues until one camp achieves a majority. This results in many winners, but also many losers in camps which will remain in opposition well after the decision is made. We can learn an important lesson, here, from the honeybees.

For videos of Bee's in action, visit Carl's blog.

Learn more from Dr. Tom Seeley's book Honeybee Democracy.


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