Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.


Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.


Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.


Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.


Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.


Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, politics, REVIEW

16 responses to “Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

  1. Very interesting and important post, Richard. I can remember once reading a young adult novel on ants that reminded me of this, and also a short story in The New Yorker back in 2010 called “Trailhead,” which also spoke about the importance of group decisions.

    • Thank you, Victoria. It struck me reading this book how ripe for metaphor the bees’ world is, and it seems many writers have drawn upon it for science fiction, mostly dystopian. I think for humans the prospect of a lifelong monastic existence is more terrifying than the loss of individuality and ego. Yet the harmony and cohesiveness of bee society strikes a positive chord too because of our hominid ancestors’ long post-simian evolution, which had Edenic aspects.

  2. Great review, Richard. I thought Seeley showed his compassion, when he, as an experiment, once removed a colony’s queen, and the colony immediately disbursed and presumably all died. He said that he has never gotten over feeling badly about it.

  3. The secret life of bees turns out to be very inspiring in real life. If I had read this post as a college president, I’m pretty sure I would have asked my team to read, respond, and consider adding these five principles to our covenant.

    • Yes, and I understand the book is having such an impact at college campuses here and there. Maybe mine, we’ll see. The book’s last chapter is where he really brings the human angle into focus, and while having read all the bee material in detail might help, the conclusion can stand alone.

  4. I so wish we could be more like bees. Maybe our life would be sweeter. Like you, I also was moved by the Inauguration. It helped me see that it is possible for us to lift each other up instead of tearing down. This book sounds somewhat like Colin Tudge’s The Tree, which also revealed the cooperative workings of nature. There’s a lot we can learn from the natural world. Thanks for the review (and mini-lesson on bee society).

  5. Fascinating, Richard. I’ve bee watching wild turkey behavior of late, and have been much impressed by how upset they get when one of their flock is missing, and the lengths they will go to call in and welcome back the missing bird. We so-called superior beings could learn a lot from bees, ants, turkeys, and. . . well, dogs, too.

    • Amen, Beth. Dogs are a lot like us, or at least are so in tune with us, having evolved with us, but are our superiors when it comes to living without ego. My dogs always forgive and forget, something humans have a real hard time doing.

  6. Ken Spker

    You appear to believe that we’d all get along wonderfully (like insects in a hive) if everybody submitted to the progressive agenda. This current debate, which you insist is so corrosive to peace and harmony, is, in fact, democracy in action. Get used to it. Some of us don’t much feel like worshiping at the feet of Lord Obama or submitting to the hive mind. You appear to have already begun to morph into a bee.

    • You’ve missed the point. The hive is extremely democratic – riotously so – and it is the scout’s (read politician) solemn responsibility to all speak up as loud as they can, and for the rest to gauge the authenticity of these wagglers. Then when EVERYONE has been most thoroughly heard out, action must be taken in a timely fashion on the basis of a quorum of the most authentically waggeling wagglers. Is it not the duty of individuals in a democracy to be sensitive to a quorum of the most AUTHENTIC waggels of those who are waggeling!

  7. Pergolesi

    Huh? You lost me about the second sentence. I think the bee metaphor is unfortunate–hive mind and all that. I appreciate that we have to listen to people with differing opinions and if that’s what you’re saying, okay. Civil dialog and reasoned discourse. I think I detect overtones of ‘tyranny of the majority’ in all that, but I could be wrong. They used to claim that Cuba was a democracy because they could always get a big crowd together in the plaza cheering Castro’s speeches. Cuba was, and remains, a police state.

    Above I notice a comment from a guy who wants to release a swarm of killer bees in the House of Representatives, no doubt because there’s a lot of Republicans in the House who disagree with his point of view. (He seems to be unconcerned for all the liberals who would also be stung in that exercise.) Is that an example the civil dialogue the article is getting at?

    Democracy is never as tidy as with insects, and never will be, for the simple reason that different people have different vital interests and the issues are far more complex than ‘where’s the best flower…’

    • Along with our ego-driven individuality, which is a fairly superficial part of us despite appearances, we already do have hive minds—and that’s largely a good thing. We receive constant messages from our groups and try to act in accordance with them. The question is how much choice we have in which sub-hives we affiliate with. The Nazis are an example of group mind but so is the U.S. Constitution.

      But such conclusions are the result of my reading a lot of evolutionary psychology and may involve a huge leap for others. I used to hate politics and dislike big sports because of the bitter mindless partisanship of opposing factions. I have come to see that there’s more on display than an urge to dominate, to see one’s own group prevail. In both examples, the salient feature is actually RULES. Overarching rules, which are ideals or metaphors for them, are what make politics and sports function. As long as we adhere to our agreed-upon rules, heeding our species deep ingrained hunger for justice, I’ll never agree our political system is “broken,” as some would have it because of partisan invective or their own party being on the outs.

      • I agree with everything you say here Richard and would highlight several of the points. First our “groupishness” is obvious when you consider the intransigence of our political views – particularly those of us that slavishly watch cable news channels that dictate to us how we should think about public affairs according to the dictates of our own little group. Let’s be honest with ourselves, folks, we are all slaves to the attitudes of our own nested groups. You have the illusion that you chose those groups, but – newsflash – you did not. The other point to emphasize is that our one saving grace is our INHERITED genetic legacy to create and subjugate ourselves to rules of fairness. If you think we dreamed up that capacity by virtue of reason, you are mistaken. It is the part of human nature that will ultimately save us. Progress in history is due to the slow instantiation of the rule of laws. The constitution of the US transforms our primate impulses to dominate and our boundless fiscal sexuality (desire to make money) into to two sporting games that can thrive because of RULES.

      • Pergolesi

        Couldn’t agree more. I realize people have built-in tribalism, a universal tendency. But we also have reason and we can make rules. We can apply reason to problem solving. The US Constitution is, in my opinion, a very clever set of rules and has survived the test of time. America has remained relatively peaceful and stable for the last 150 years Europe, Asia and Africa have known nothing but constant strife. We must be doing something right. I just think the framers were a very smart bunch of guys. I think one of the important elements in our system is respect for the individual, something that would appear to be lacking in bee societies.