Bee Hive Democracy Isn’t So Different From Human Democracy

Can we take a hint from the animal kingdom in order to smooth out our process of selecting a leader and reaching consensus?

Photo: kokogiak

Amidst the chaos and excitement of election day, Slate wonders, can we take a hint from the animal kingdom in order to smooth out our process of selecting a leader and reaching consensus?

Bees’ election system is probably most like our own. Honey bee hives are usually somewhat democratic. Bees weigh new nest options by a site’s size, humidity and presence of surrounding flowers, and individuals vote on their favorite nest site with intricate dances.

When it comes to choosing a leader, a queen assumes her position one of two ways. Either she kills all of her potential competitors before the helpless victims emerge from their royal cells (probably not the way we want our political system to work), or the workers coax rivals out of their cells and force all contestants to duel (perhaps the bee equivalent of a debate). The ultimate winner of all of the duels becomes the queen and takes over the hive. Unfortunately, the losers are unceremoniously killed and thrown out of the nest.

The workers do have a say-so in which of the dueling queen emerges as the hive’s new leader. When scientists removed dueling queens from the presence of their future subjects, the bigger bee always won the fight. However, when they allowed the queens to battle with the workers surrounding them, the bigger queen did not always win. In other words, the workers somehow influence the duel outcomes, preventing the matches from simply being a shoo-in for the largest contestant.

What about other examples of leader-selection from the animal kingdom?

  • Fire ant queens take part in brutal battles-to-the-death that can last hours.
  • Wolves beat, pummel and bit their way to the top of the pack for gaining hierarchy.
  • Termites rely on extreme nepotism; when queens die, they are replaced by exact clones.

The moral? When it comes to animal democracy, we should probably take a hint from the bees, but without the sacrificial slaughter of fallen contestants.
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