Just like us, only smaller

Have you ever seen a swarm of bees in flight? If ever you’re lucky enough to see one, maybe sometime this spring, pay close attention. Really, really close attention. See the speed at which they move, with faster bees on the outside, pointing the slower bees in the right direction. See the careful way they make sure the queen is in the middle of the swarm, ensuring the hive’s success when it makes its final nest (she’s the only one who lays eggs). Notice that the bees don’t wander off on their own; they stay with their swarm-mates, all with one unified goal.

The swarm is making its way to an agreed-upon hive site that will almost certainly be the optimal place for them to thrive and prosper for the year. It’ll be a site that the swarm’s scout bees have identified, carefully researched, and then suggested – and promoted — to the other members of the swarm. When agreement is reached, the bees fly to this new home.

What you’re seeing is a version of democracy in action. That, at least, is Thomas Seeley’s idea. Honeybee Democracy is the fascinating explanation of that idea and the research underlying it. Seeley has spent his life on this research, trying to find out how honeybees in the wild decide where to make their new home. Researchers in post-war Germany had already figured out the basics, that scout bees looking for a new nest site return to their swarm with reports on places they’ve found and then somehow get all the other bees to agree to go to the site.

What Seeley and his colleagues have done is figure out precisely how they do that. And what a lifetime of research it is! There can be up to 10,000 bees in a swarm. (Yes, you need to count a swarm or two or three just to make sure.) Scout bees go out to look for a good place. The scouts tend to be older, more experienced bees. (Yes, you need to figure out how to age a bee.) These scout bees research hive sites and almost always choose the optimal one to report on. (To get data on that, you’ll need an island with no potential natural hive sites and five or six potential human-made hives of varying quality for comparison. Happily there is such a place, Appledore Island, off the East Coast.) The scouts then report back to the swarm, telling them about the quality and direction of the proposed site. (The early German researchers had figured out the direction part of this equation in the 1950s but this new research showed that bees come back to the swarm and report qualitative — yes, qualitative — information about the various sites.)

The heart of Honeybee Democracy describes just how the bees make their destination decision. Seeley shows that it’s surprisingly like a New England town meeting, with everyone getting to say their piece but no one leader dominating or directing the discussion. (Despite her name, the queen is not a leader. She’s merely a highly specialized egg-laying bee with no other authority at all.) Seeley shows that the way bees make their collective decision is the same as the way the human brain works in optimizing our rational decisions; we take all sorts of inputs, research them, consider them, and then decide. So do bees, only there are 10,000 of them acting as what seems like one mind. Amazing.

This is a book by a scientist reporting on scientific research, so there are lots of charts and tables and detailed info on experimental results and so forth, but if that’s not for you it’s easy to skip gently over those parts. (I can quite happily live out my life without, for instance, reading another description of computer vision algorithms for bee tracking or indeed the neurobiological basis of mammal eye-movement decisions. But that’s just me.) And because it’s research, I kept wondering about contrary points of view. Scientific research involves detective work and detective work means false leads and faint trails. So haven’t other researchers come to other conclusions? Do all bee researchers accept Seeley’s ideas? He doesn’t say.

Of course he goes rather beyond the scientific pale when discussing the idea of bee democracy, largely because we like to think of ideal democracy as a set of rational or at least semi-rational decisions. In those terms, bees can’t be rational, even if they make decisions that we can equate to our version of rationality.

Honeybee Democracy is a wonderful and absorbing detective story but it’s a detective story that never quite ends, because that’s the nature of science: knowledge is never fixed. In fact in the months since this book came out, Seeley and other researchers discovered that there seems to be a bit more heavy-handedness to the Which Hive Site Should We Choose debate than he originally postulated. It seems that not only do the scout bees do their elaborate dances to promote a high quality site, but towards the end of the discussions, they also attempt to silence their opponents by head butting them. Uh huh. Just like those talking thugs on our TV channels.

So it turns out that democracy amongst honeybees is even more like our version than anyone thought. Who knew? Next time you have a spoonful of honey, give a thought to the debate that got it to you.

This is a slightly edited version of a review that will (or probably will) appear in the March issue of Edible Wasatch. Buy the book here http://www.indiebound.com

About Patrick de Freitas

Recovering bilbiopole interested in way too many things so I often have difficulty keeping up with myself. Or perhaps I'm more scattered than I imagine.
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