Columnist Graeme Sephton: Honeybee experiment in democratic process


Published: 3/5/2018 7:59:41 PM

Over the last few years I have followed the Amherst charter debate with great interest.

As a participant in the various layers of our democracy, like many of you, I have often pondered some of the dramatically dysfunctional features, most notably at the federal level.

I know that I like my own town’s version of annual Town Meeting in Shutesbury but, with no skin in the Amherst game, I never before presumed to express my opinion.

However, recently I happened on a book that describes how, every year, wild honeybees set out as a swarm to choose a new hive, as they have been doing for about 100 million years. It is a critical life-or-death, group decision-making process that Professor Thomas D. Seeley describes in his fascinating and entertaining book, “Honeybee Democracy.”

And if you are currently uncertain about how to vote on the charter referendum on March 27, I believe this book will help you make a better informed choice. Also, any fans of biomimicry will be thrilled to find the bees’ natural experiment described in this book.

Over many decades Seeley has been deeply immersed in the research about how bees go house-hunting, and exactly how they reach consensus on their final critical choice. He discovered that it has distinct similarities to many New England town meetings. (Puritan influence no doubt precluded the bees’ methods of dancing and tail waggling as unseemly.) And he argues very convincingly that we could all benefit greatly by copying some of their time-tested group decision-making behaviors.

A typical swarm emerges in the spring and initially parks itself very near the parent hive. A swarm often has around 10,000 bees and a queen, and they have enough honey fuel in their stomachs to survive up to two days. That is the deadline for the scout bees, about 40 experienced foragers, to fly off in all directions to find and evaluate what choices they might have in a three-mile radius for a new home.

Like us, honeybees have essential criteria that a home must conform to such as size, volume, orientation, entry size and security, insulation characteristics, proximity to food and other features. The swarms that make bad decisions regularly perish within 12 months. So it’s a complex calculation with many trade-offs and compromises necessary, since there are very few perfect choices. It is very similar to any town having to evaluate a complex capital expense plan like a school or other facility.

Each scout bee returns and “dances” to indicate what she found, describing the direction and distance. So all the returning scouts pitch their own choice to the other scouts, but then they go and check out one of the other choices reported. They return once again and dance for whichever choice seemed best. They will all keep doing this until about 80 percent of the scouts are all doing the same dance. And at that point the whole swarm launches like an armada heading straight to the new home. Sometimes the decision only takes a few hours, but it absolutely must be decided in a day or two.

Scientists call things like this bee negotiation process a “natural experiment.” Like any biomimicry situation, it provides humans with an opportunity to harvest free research and development effort put in by nature using trial and error over millions of years. Just like us, bees are not all geniuses or saints, but they have evolved their decision-making to optimally apply diverse collective intelligence and opinion, and quickly turn it into the best right answer.

And there is no evidence that the 20 percent of the hive who might not have agreed with the choice feel rancor or hold a grudge for years afterwards. That would also have a high survival penalty for the hive.

Evolutionary biologists have great fun observing what is, and pondering all of the crazy possibilities that must have played out in the eons that bees have debated and scrambled for new homes. Even in a mere 20,000 years of discernible human political institutions we can see wildly diverse approaches but with none of the time-tested confidence and certainty that bees might boast — if they were ever boastful or reflective.

Seeley asserts that many of the bees’ very successful decision rules are observable to us. Researchers even came up with clever controlled experiments to see if swarms always make the best hive choice available. Remarkably they do! If a Fortune 500 company had anything near this sort of proven success level on complex negotiations and choices, it would be hyped all over the business news magazines.

The queen appears not to influence the decision. She assents to the collective wisdom like a good constitutional monarch.

The scout bees all seem to be very open-minded in objectively and respectfully evaluating their initial choice against the other scouts’ suggestions. Remember, while they all have constitutional rights to carry (stingers), intimidation and violence must not have been a successful approach because no such methods currently can be observed among the bees.

Lobbyists, real estate brokers, developers and other special interests don’t seem to overly sway the bees’ decision-making. I was raised in Sydney and I recall that it was a feature of local town councils that incumbents would be regularly indicted for scams and corruption.

Good luck Amherst, and may the best choice win!

Graeme Sephton, of Shutesbury, is an information technology engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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