PGS Opinion: What can we learn about democracy from honeybees?

When we think of bees, words that spring to mind may include honey, hives, or swarming. But democracy? In his new book, Tom Seeley gives us good reason to associate honeybees with democracy, as he shows how bees make a complex group decision in choosing their new nest. In light of his research, Seeley suggests five lessons we could learn from bees about making better group decisions. Seeley has even put these lessons to the test, successfully, when he chaired the Cornell biology department.

The 5 Rules of Honeybee Democracy

1. Compose a decision making group of individuals with shared interests.

In the case of bees, nobody can survive without the group. Humans don’t share this fate nor can they always choose who comprises their decision making group so we are often less inclined to cooperate. However, human groups can remember that the overarching goal is to make decisions that will benefit everyone involved and they can foster good morale and constructive comments.

2. Minimize the role of the leader.

Honeybees make decisions without a leader. The Queen sits on the sidelines and the group makes decisions without a leader telling them what to do. In turn, humans may benefit from a leader who is impartial and does not exert his or her influence on the group. The leader, rather, can create an atmosphere of open inquiry and disagreement and help the group tap its summed knowledge. Only then can the group fully exploit the power of collective decision making.

3. Seek diverse solutions.

Before a honeybee colony decides on a new home, the bees will explore miles of territory and up to 20 possible places to live. Clearly, they like to give themselves options. Here too humans can learn something from bees by promoting a thorough exploration of options when faced with a complex problem.

4. Debate, debate, debate!

Before a decision is made on the best site, there is often disagreement among the honeybees about which nest is the best candidate – the roomiest, sunniest, and highest off the ground. People, too, should engage in a spirited and civil exchange of views. In short, there should be an open and public competition of ideas but, like the bees, each person should make a private and personal evaluation of the ideas.

5. Use quorum for an accurate and speedy decision.

Unanimity is not always the answer when it comes to effective group decisions. Honeybees don’t have this luxury as they need to find their new home quickly and efficiently or risk death. The bees use quorum sensing, therefore, to make a speedy, yet accurate decision. Humans, too, can employ this tactic by periodically polling a group to see how close it is to agreement. If far from unanimity, then more debate is needed, but if only a small minority remains in support of a position then further debate may be pointless and it is better to switch to the majority and achieve consensus.

  • Are those bees wearing hats? Why yes, in some respect, they are. The bees in the image above have been painstakingly numbered as part of Dr. Seeley’s research.
  • Dr. Seeley was interviewed on Late Night Live, airing on Australian Broadcast Radio. Listen in here.

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  1. Our understanding of the social organization employed by these fascinating creatures has certainly come a long way since the time of Bernard Mandeville.

  2. This seems like another attempt at anthromorphism.

  3. Now if we could just figure out how to get our government officials to act more like honeybees…