In the spring, bee hives get so rich with honey, so crowded with baby bees, they often burst in two. Some bees stay in the original nest with a new queen, but a second group, led by the old queen, heads off to establish a new home. If there's a cloud of bees hanging by a tree branch in your back yard, that's them — the house hunters.
How do they choose a new home?
Ah, says Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, this is the beautiful part: The queen doesn't say, "Here's where we're going!" She's not in charge. The decision is made collectively, bottom-up, and it's done by "voting."
Bees are natural democrats. They've been shaped that way by evolution, plus they've got this spectacular, secret extra ingredient [...]
When honeybees seek a new home, they choose the best site through a democratic process that humans would do well to emulate, according to a Cornell biologist. (Credit: iStockphoto/Irina Tischenko)
The bee's decision-making process is similar to how neurons work to make decisions in primate brains, Seeley says. In both swarms and brains, no individual bee or neuron has an overview, but with many independent individuals providing different pieces of information the group achieves optimal decision-making. Ants similarly organize themselves to make collective decisions, Seeley said.
"Consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them," Seeley writes.
Humans can learn much about democratic decision-making by looking at bees, Seeley says. If the members of a group have common interests, such as the bees in a swarm, then the keys to good collective decision-making are to ensure the group contains diverse members and an impartial leader -- and conducts open debates.
My analyses of collective decision-making by honey bee colonies indicate that a group will possess a high level of SI if among the group’s members there is:
1) diversity of knowledge about the available options,
2) open and honest sharing of information about the options,
3) independence in the members’ evaluations of the options,
4) unbiased aggregation of the members’ opinions on the options, and
5) leadership that fosters but does not dominate the discussion.
Future explorations will examine when a group benefits from using the organizational mechanisms of SI (distributed data collection, collective information processing, and democratic choice) or when a group is better off being led by high-performing individuals.
Seeley, T.D. 1995. The Wisdom of the Hive. Harvard University Press.
Seeley, T.D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press.