Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Honeybee Democracy

The more we learn about bees, the more we find that they have already made many of the great advances that were once thought only to belong to mankind. Things like air conditioning, the benefits of hygiene, and a language based on dancing have been used by honeybees for millions of years. Now it turns out that they even have been practicing democracy, and compared to our own imperfect electoral process, they do it much better.

A new book out, "Honeybee Democracy" by Thomas Seeley, beautifully describes one of nature's most mysterious and intelligent processes, how tens of thousands of bees collectively decide the best site for their new home for their reproductive swarm. The stakes are high, as a bad choice can mean doom for them when winter comes. Choosing a tree hollow which doesn't have enough room to store a winter's worth of honey, or one with a large vulnerable entrance is a mistake which must not be made. The instinct of bees has been honed for countless generations to make sure they do whatever it takes to survive, and for a bee colony that means good collective decision making.

Dr. Seeley has spent most of his career at Cornell University studying the intricacies of how bees communicate and make the collective decisions which allows them to be so efficient and productive. And fortunately for us he is one of those rare scientists whose gift for writing and sharing what he has learned matches his outstanding scientific skills. In this book he not only describes in a very readable fashion what the bees are up to, but also how he figured out clever ways to decipher the inner workings of the hive. So as well as a fascinating story of bee biology, we also get to see how the mind of a great scientist works.

Dr. Seeley is Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell, and it is interesting to note that while his research may seem far removed from practical application, that is not the case. By exploring the principles governing collection decision making, he is showing us what we can learn from millions of years of evolution of insect societies. Read his recent article in Harvard Business Review, The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives, for how we might apply these principles.

"Honeybee Democracy" is Seeley's third book, and together with the other two, "Honeybee Ecology", and "The Wisdom of the Hive" they are all among the very favorites in my library.

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