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Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Honeybee Democracy
    Book Description:

    Honeybees make decisions collectively--and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery,Honeybee Democracybrings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley's pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

    In the late spring and early summer, as a bee colony becomes overcrowded, a third of the hive stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to produce a daughter colony. Seeley describes how these bees evaluate potential nest sites, advertise their discoveries to one another, engage in open deliberation, choose a final site, and navigate together--as a swirling cloud of bees--to their new home. Seeley investigates how evolution has honed the decision-making methods of honeybees over millions of years, and he considers similarities between the ways that bee swarms and primate brains process information. He concludes that what works well for bees can also work well for people: any decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect, a leader's influence should be minimized, debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.

    An impressive exploration of animal behavior,Honeybee Democracyshows that decision-making groups, whether honeybee or human, can be smarter than even the smartest individuals in them.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3595-9
    Subjects: Zoology, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-2)
    Tom Seeley

    Beekeepers have long observed, and lamented, the tendency of their hives to swarm in the late spring and early summer. When this happens, the majority of a colony’s members—a crowd of some ten thousand worker bees—flies off with the old queen to produce a daughter colony, while the rest stays at home and rears a new queen to perpetuate the parental colony. The migrating bees settle on a tree branch in a beardlike cluster and then hang there together for several hours or a few days. During this time, these homeless insects will do something truly amazing; they...

    (pp. 3-19)

    Honeybees are sweetness and light—producers of honey and beeswax—so it is no great wonder that humans have prized these small creatures since ancient times. Even today, when rich sweets and bright lights are commonplace, we humans continue to treasure these hard-working insects, especially the 200 billion or so that live in partnership with commercial beekeepers and perform on our behalf a critical agricultural mission: go forth and pollinate. In North America, the managed honeybees are the primary pollinators for some 50 fruit and vegetable crops, which together form the most nutritious portion of our daily diet. But honeybees...

    (pp. 20-42)

    The honeybee,Apis mellifera, is just one of nearly 20,000 species of bees that exist worldwide. They are a surprisingly diverse lot—some are smaller than a rice grain, while others will half fill a teacup—but they are all descended from one ancestral species of vegetarian wasp that lived approximately 100 million years ago, in the Early Cretaceous period, when huge dinosaurs were still stomping about and flowering plants were just starting to appear. Even today, many bee species are remarkably wasplike in appearance, but behaviorally the two groups are distinct. Nearly all wasps, including the familiar paper wasps...

    (pp. 43-72)

    Like Robert Frost’s woodchuck, a honeybee colony is “instinctively thorough” about its dwelling place, for only certain tree cavities provide good protection from predators and sufficient refuge from harsh physical conditions, especially strong winds and deep cold. No fewer than six distinct properties of a potential homesite—including cavity volume, entrance height, entrance size, and presence of combs from an earlier colony—are assessed to produce an overall judgment of a site’s quality. The care with which honeybees choose their homes has been known for only about 30 years, which might seem surprising given that humans have been culturing these...

    (pp. 73-98)

    When a honeybee swarm chooses its future home, it practices the form of democracy known as direct democracy, in which the individuals within a community who choose to participate in its decision making do so personally rather than through representatives. The collective decision making of a bee swarm therefore resembles a New England town meeting in which the registered voters who are interested in local affairs meet in face-to-face assemblies, usually once a year, to debate issues of home rule and to vote on them, rendering binding decisions for their community. Of course, there are differences in how direct democracy...

    (pp. 99-117)

    In the previous chapter we saw how the quarrels among scout bees, like those among human lovers, “oft in . . . concord end.” Now we will see if the agreements reached by the bees are “pleasing.” That is, when the dancing bees reach a consensus about their new homesite, are they apt to have chosen the best site? The answer is yes! But before looking at the evidence that a swarm usually chooses the best of the many candidate sites the scouts discover, let’s first consider the structure of the choice problem faced by the house-hunting bees. This will...

    (pp. 118-145)

    A dissent-free decision. This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen in the last two chapters how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends withallthe dancing bees indicating support for justone...

    (pp. 146-174)

    Anyone who has the immense good fortune of watching a honeybee colony cast a swarm will be treated to many astonishing displays of animal behavior. First there is the feverish rush of thousands of bees out of the hive and up into the sky. Minutes later, the cloud of swirling, swarming bees mysteriously condenses into a tight crowd hanging from a tree branch, where for several hours or several days nearly all the bees sit quietly, almost motionless. Only the swarm’s scouts remain active, flying to and from the swarm cluster and performing their eye-catching dances on its surface to...

    (pp. 175-197)

    Thomas Smibert, writing about bumblebees flying home “o’er lake and winding wave” in his native Scotland, lauded the marvelous ability of bees to return home after visiting distant flowers. His praise is richly deserved. We now know that a worker honeybee can navigate to and from flowers blooming 10 or more kilometers (more than 6 miles) from the hive, a thoroughly respectable distance for a creature only 14 millimeters (about half an inch) long. We also now know that bumblebees and honeybees find their way home using navigation methods like those used for ages by sailors making a passage over...

    (pp. 198-217)

    The previous six chapters of this book describe what is known about how the three pounds of bees we call a honeybee swarm makes a decision about where it will build its new home. The starting point was the mystery of how a bunch of tiny-brained bees, hanging from a tree branch, can make a good choice for their future living quarters and can take timely action on their decision. We then reviewed the observational and experimental evidence concerning each specific mechanism of the house-hunting process—an ingenious and sophisticated tangle of behaviors, communication systems, and feedback loops. Throughout, we’ve...

    (pp. 218-232)

    Let us now consider what lessons we humans can learn from honeybees about how to structure a decision-making group so that the knowledge and brainpower of its members is effectively marshaled to produce good collective choices. This is an important subject, for human society relies on groups to be more reliable than individuals when it comes to making weighty decisions. This is why we have juries, boards of trustees, blue-ribbon panels, and nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. But as we all know, groups don’t always make smart decisions either. Unless a group is properly organized, so that the...

    (pp. 233-236)

    Sixty years ago, Martin Lindauer happened upon a beardlike cluster of honey-bees hanging on a bush and noticed something odd: the handful of bees on the swarm that were waggle dancing were black with soot, red with brick dust, and gray with soil. Why were they so grubby? Could it be, he wondered, that while most of the swarm bees had been quietly bivouacked in the bush, these dirty dancers had been out searching for nest sites? With this chance observation, and the insight it sparked, Lindauer embarked on what he would later describe as “the most beautiful experience” of...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 237-260)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 261-264)
  17. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 265-270)
  18. Index
    (pp. 271-274)