Honeybee Democracy - Thomas D. Seeley (2010)


Beekeepers have long observed, and lamented, the tendency of their hives to swarm in the late spring and early summer. When this happens, the majority of a colony’s members—a crowd of some ten thousand worker bees—fies of with the old queen to produce a daughter colony, while the rest stays at home and rears a new queen to perpetuate the parental colony. The migrating bees settle on a tree branch in a beardlike cluster and then hang there together for several hours or a few days. During this time, these homeless insects will do something truly amazing; they will hold a democratic debate to choose their new home.

This book is about how honeybees conduct this democratic decision-making process. We will examine the way that several hundred of a swarm’s oldest bees spring into action as nest-site scouts and begin exploring the countryside for dark crevices. We will see how these house hunters evaluate the potential dwelling places they find; advertise their discoveries to their fellow scouts with lively dances; debate vigorously to choose the best nest site, then rouse the entire swarm to take off; and finally pilot the cloud of airborne bees to its home. This is typically a hollow tree several miles away.

My motive for writing this book about democracy in honeybee swarms is twofold. First, I want to present to biologists and social scientists a coherent summary of the research on this topic that has been conducted over the last 60 years, starting with the work of Martin Lindauer in Germany. Until now, the information on this subject has remained scattered among dozens of papers published in numerous scientific journals, which makes it hard to see how each discovery is connected to all the others. The story of how honeybees make a democratic decision based on a face-to-face, consensus-seeking assembly is certainly important to behavioral biologists interested in how social animals make group decisions. I hope it will also prove important to neuroscientists studying the neural basis of decision making, for there are intriguing similarities between honeybee swarms and primate brains in the ways that they process information to make decisions. Furthermore, I hope the story of the house-hunting bees will be helpful to social scientists in their search for ways to raise the reliability of decision making by human groups. One important lesson that we can glean from the bees in this regard is that even in a group composed of friendly individuals with common interests, conflict can be a useful element in a decision-making process. That is, it often pays a group to argue things carefully through to find the best solution to a tough problem.

My second motive for writing this book is to share with beekeepers and general readers the pleasures I have experienced in investigating swarms of honeybees. I can thank these beautiful little creatures for many hours of the purest joy of discovery, interspersed among (to be sure) days and weeks of fruitless and sometimes discouraging work. To give a sense of the excitement and challenge of studying the bees, I will report numerous personal events, speculations, and thoughts about conducting scientific studies.

The work described here rests on a solid foundation of knowledge that the late Professor Martin Lindauer (1918–2008) created with his studies of the househunting bees in the 1950s. I wish to dedicate this book to Martin Lindauer, my friend and teacher, whose pioneering investigations inspired my own explorations of the wonderland of the bees’ society.

Tom Seeley
Ithaca, New York