Monday, August 14, 2017

Striving for a Honeybee Democracy

Democracy is hard. And slow. And complicated. But if it is done well, it can result consistently in the best decisions and courses of action for a group. Just ask honeybees.

When a honeybee hive becomes overcrowded, the colony (which can have membership in the tens of thousands) divides in what will be one of the riskiest and potentially deadliest decisions of their lives. About a third of the worker bees will stay home to rear a new queen while the old queen and the rest of the hive will leave to establish a new hive. The newly homeless colony will coalesce on a nearby branch while they search out and decide among new home options. This process can take anywhere from hours to days, during which the colony is vulnerable and exposed. But they can’t be too hasty: choosing a new home that is too small or too exposed could be equally deadly.

Our homeless honeybee swarm found an unconventional "branch". We'd better
decide on a new home soon! Photo by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia.

Although each swarm has a queen, she plays no role in making this life-or-death decision. Rather, this decision is made by a consensus among 300-500 scout bees after an intense “dance-debate”. Then, as a single united swarm, they leave their branch and move into their new home. At this point, it’s critical that the swarm is unified in their choice of home site, because a split-decision runs the risk of creating a chaos in which the one and only queen can be lost and the entire hive will perish. This is a high-stakes decision that honeybees make democratically, efficiently, and amazingly, they almost always make the best possible choice! How do they do that? And how can we do that?

The honeybee house-hunting process has several features that allow them, as a group, to hone in on the best possible solution. The process begins when a scout discovers a site that has the potential to be a new home. She returns to her swarm and reports on this site, using a waggle dance that encodes the direction and distance to the site and her estimate of its quality. The longer she dances, the more suitable she perceived the site to be. Other scouts do the same, perhaps visiting the same site or maybe a new one, and they report their findings in dance when they return. (Importantly, scouts only dance for sites that they have seen themselves). As more scouts are recruited, the swarm breaks into a dancing frenzy with many scouts dancing for multiple possible sites. Over time, scouts that are less enthusiastic about their discovered site stop dancing, in part discouraged by dancers for other sites that head-bump them while beeping. Eventually, the remaining dancing scouts are unified in their dance for what is almost always the best site. The swarm warms up their flight muscles and off they go, in unison, to their new home.

Each dot represents where on the body this dancer was head-bumped by a dancer for a
competing site. Each time she's bumped, she's a little less enthusiastic about her own dance.
Figure from Seeley, et al. 2012 paper in Science.

What can we learn from these democratic experts? As much as I would love to see Congress in a vigorous dance-debate head-butting one another, I don't think that is the take-home message of choice. Tom Seeley at Cornell University has gained tremendous insight into effective group decision-making from his years observing honeybees, which he shares with us in his book, Honeybee Democracy. Tom has summarized his wisdom gained from observing honeybees in the following:

Members of Highly Effective Hives:

1. share a goal

2. search broadly to find possible solutions to the problem

3. contribute their information freely and honestly

4. evaluate the options independently and vote independently

5. aggregate their votes fairly

All of these critical guidelines can be encapsulated with a single objective: The decision-making body needs to objectively consider a range of information from individuals with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and knowledge. We can apply this to our own human decision-making: It means that if you don't agree with the decisions of your School Board, Town Board, City Council, County Legislature, State Legislature, or National Legislature, then your background, expertise and knowledge are likely missing from the deciding body. Yes, you can write and call your representatives and provide them with part of your knowledge, or you can run for office yourself and make people with your background truly included in the decision-making process.

Running for a human political office is more complicated and confusing than becoming a honeybee scout. No matter what your background is, you will need to work hard to gain additional expertise in campaigning. But now is the time to get into the game: there is a tremendous upswell of support for people that are new to politics. Many organizations provide free training, connections, even financial support to recruit new people with new perspectives. And these days, there seems to be a supportive group for just about everyone who wants to get involved.

If many of your views align with a political party, you can often turn to the party itself for support. Democrats can turn directly to Democrats.Org or the National Democratic Training Committee. Likewise, Republicans can go to EquipGOP or the Republican Leadership Initiative. Support is also available for Libertarians and members of the Green Party.

Private groups provide additional resources for candidates of particular backgrounds. For example, Camp Wellstone is a training program for any progressive candidate, and Run For Something provides additional support for progressives under 35. Additional groups working to promote more diverse representation are the BRAT-PAC for African American candidates, the Latino Victory Project for Latino candidates, and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund for LGBTQ candidates. And, my own personal favorite, 314 Action promotes scientists and other STEM-trained candidates.

Women candidates, in particular, have more resources than ever right now. This is tremendously valuable to increasing our decision-making diversity, since although women make up more than 50% of the US population, women make up less than 20% of the National Legislature, and less than 25% of state legislatures. Women candidates of every party and background can get support from IGNITE, She Should Run, the Center for American Women and Politics, and the Women's Campaign Fund. The National Federation of Republican Women specifically supports republican women candidates. Likewise, EMILY’s List and Emerge America provides training for progressive women candidates. Higher Heights supports black women candidates for any office.

Many feel that our hive has been homelessly clinging to our exposed branch for too long. If we are going to make good, well-informed, effective, and efficient decisions, we need open and respectful communication across diverse backgrounds. Increasing diversity in the decision-making body improves the quality of the decisions that affect us all. If honeybees can do it, so can we.


Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

2. Seeley, T., Visscher, P., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P., Franks, N., & Marshall, J. (2011). Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision-Making by Honeybee Swarms Science, 335 (6064), 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

3. List, C., Elsholtz, C., & Seeley, T. (2009). Independence and interdependence in collective decision making: an agent-based model of nest-site choice by honeybee swarms Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1518), 755-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0277

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