A group of Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera li...

I like honeybees. They are pretty amazing in many ways. As we get to the  late spring and early summer and their colony gets overcrowded, they do some serious decision-making.  About a third of the hive will remain there and rear a new queen, but a swarm of thousands will leave with the old queen to produce a daughter colony.

Now, I am learning that honeybees make decisions collectively and democratically. I’m reading Thomas D. Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy, which is based on decades of his research. I’m not sure I will get through all of the book, but I’m dipping into sections and loving the illustrations.

What I have learned is that the bees evaluate potential nest sites, communicate their reviews  to one another, and, according to Seeley, have some “open deliberation” about the possibilities. When they choose a site, they will navigate as a swirling cloud of bees to their new home.

This is an annual life-changing process. Imagine choosing and traveling to a new home every year. Imagine leaving behind most of the people you knew and striking out to a place without any actual home being there. The implications of the research and book also make us think about ourselves.

The term anthropomorphize means to personify or give human characteristics to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, etc. I don’t know of an antonym to that word, but this is a case of giving bee qualities to people.  Do bees have things to teach us about  collective fact-finding, debate, and consensus building?  Should the U.S. Congress be required to read about bees and made to give consideration to their inability to use  collective wisdom and effective decision-making?

Of course, the bees have had the chance to evolve their decision-making methods for millions of years. Seeley has considered some similarities between the bee swarms and our “superior” primate brains and the way we process information.

Like any good teacher, we discover that in a decision-making group you need individuals with shared interests and mutual respect. Leaders are nice but their influence should be minimized in favor of open debate. You need to look at diverse options and solutions. The majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.

A few of my friends like to remind me that we don’t live in a Democracy here in America. It’s a Republic and the Founding Fathers were afraid of majority rule. But the lesson of the honeybees is that the group can be smarter than even the smartest individuals in it. And you get honey too. Sweet.

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