The Secret Life of Bees

The world’s leading expert on bee behavior discovers the secrets of decision-making in a swarm

Biologist Thomas Seeley says animals other than bees use swarm intelligence—including, sometimes, people. (Peter Essick / Aurora Photos)
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Groups work well, he argues, if the power of leaders is minimized. A group of people can propose many different ideas—the more the better, in fact. But those ideas will only lead to a good decision if listeners take the time to judge their merits for themselves, just as scouts go to check out potential homes for themselves.

Groups also do well if they’re flexible, ensuring that good ideas don’t lose out simply because they come late in the discussion. And rather than try to debate an issue until everyone in a group agrees, Seeley advises using a honeybee-style quorum. Otherwise the debate will drag on.

One of the strengths of honeybees is that they share the same goal: finding a new home. People who come together in a democracy, however, may have competing interests. Seeley advises that people should be made to feel that they are part of the decision-making group, so that their debates don’t become about destroying the enemy, but about finding a solution for everyone. “That sense of belonging can be nurtured,” Seeley said. The more we fashion our democracies after honeybees, Seeley argues, the better off we’ll be.

Carl Zimmer’s latest book is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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