How honeybees lead themselves

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2011

A library friend, who knows about my interest in democratic work places, told me about a new book she had recently cataloged: Honeybee Democracy.
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Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist, summarizes much of his own and others’ research – enticingly and engagingly presented - on the honeybee and how the bee manages to “achieve an incredibly harmony of labor without supervision.”

Dr. Seeley explores and explains the puzzling questions of how bee swarms, made up of around 10,000 individual bees, often exposed and dangling from the limb of a tree, choose a new, safe, nest in a timely way out of a dozen possibilities, presented to the swarm by scout bees. (Seeley emphasizes that there is no supreme bee. For the experiments the queen bee was sequestered from the decision-making.) The bees take in the information presented by each scout through a “waggle dance” about the site the scout has found and is promoting.
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From the information in the several dances, the scouts narrow down the choices and locations – some bees favoring one site more than another, and then shifting alliances, until one site remains and becomes the collective decision. (How 10,000 bees get to the new home is another research topic in Seeley's book.)
The bees’ choice –according to Seeley’s metrics of what makes for a happy home - is usually the best spot - sheltered, a small doorway, the interior large enough to contain the swarm and its honey, all the while maintaining a high enough temperature to survive the coldest weather.
Anyone that has gone house hunting knows it is a complicated matter for humans, no less so for bees. And, while we might lose money or a marriage on a poor choice, the swarm faces extinction.

Of special interest to me was Chapter 10, “Swarm Smarts.” Seeley spells our how he applies his bee research results to chairing an academic department. Tongue in cheek, he calls these lessons:
“Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups.”

1. Compose the decision making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect. (If we discover our true, shared interests we probably will have achieved mutual respect. That said, I have taken part in discussions on how to re-invent, how to catch the second upward curve, wherein disparate interests were far afield and cliques were unwilling to surrender their “choices.” Invariably, this was the sticking point when it came time to divvy up resources in new ways. We’d finally compromise and not choose the best option. The bees have us (humans) beat!

2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. As Seeley points out, there is no leader in the beehive. The queen has a genetic role, not a leadership role. We have numerous examples of how a workplace leader can stymie a group’s exploration of best options, and through fear or other intimidation, ram through the leader’s one solution. Seeley seems to be suggesting that in human situations the leader should be more of a facilitator than the decision maker. I’d agree. If you, the leader, have THE solution, then you’ll have to figure out a way to introduce it and allow it to compete with the other ideas, as suggested in steps 3 & 4. Bees illustrate the invaluable role of "effective followers" in reaching the best decisions.

3. Seek diverse solutions to the problem.

4. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate.
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5. Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed.
A quorum response is an antidote to endless debate. Once a threshold number is reached among bees for where to nest, that is a quorum and those bees that have yet to be persuaded, now stop advertising and sign on to the chosen nest. In faculty decisions, ones requiring a unanimous vote like for granting tenure, Seeley takes periodic anonymous straw polls (after each biologist has done his/her version of an information-sharing waggle dance, no doubt). He finds that once 80% of the professors agree with a decision, the 20% that is holding out concedes.

It would be fun to have a venue in which to talk some more about Dr. Seeley’s remarkable research. When I return this November to Latvia, with its ancient, wide and varied apiculture - similar in some ways to what I observe in Lithuania (don't tell the Latvians I said that), I just may bring this up when I do presentations in Riga and in Vilnius!

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