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Honeybee Democracy

A fascinating story of collective wisdom and effective decision-making

By Thomas D. Seeley
13-minute read
Audio available
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley

Honeybee Democracy (2010) traces the fascinating story of how bees decide where to build their new hive. Using highly evolved skills, like independent research and community debate, the bees’ deeply democratic decision-making process is a model we can all lea

  • Popular science enthusiasts with a fondness for insects
  • Politics buffs who want to learn about democratic systems
  • Anyone and everyone who thinks bees are cool

Thomas D. Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell University, is a leading authority on bees. He has written many books on the subject, including The Wisdom of the Hive and Honeybee Ecology.

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Honeybee Democracy

A fascinating story of collective wisdom and effective decision-making

By Thomas D. Seeley
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley
Synopsis

Honeybee Democracy (2010) traces the fascinating story of how bees decide where to build their new hive. Using highly evolved skills, like independent research and community debate, the bees’ deeply democratic decision-making process is a model we can all lea

Key idea 1 of 8

Each year, honeybees choose a new nest site through a complex, democratic process.

Much to the distress of beekeepers everywhere, there’s one event that happens every year. In late spring or early summer, two-thirds of all the honeybees in a hive gather into a big, buzzing ball and form a cluster on a nearby tree branch. They stay there for a few hours or days before finally buzzing off to a brand new home.

But how do they choose their new home? How do they make sure it’s big and safe enough for a whole hive of bees? And, when they all fly there together, how do they know where to go?

As the author has discovered over decades of careful research, the process by which bees find a new nest site is both fascinating and democratic. So much so, that we could learn from it ourselves.

The key message here is: Each year, honeybees choose a new nest site through a complex, democratic process.

Humans have been fascinated by bees for centuries, and have kept them for honey since ancient Egyptian times. But it was only in the twentieth century that we began to understand much about them, and a lot of that work was done by a pioneering German scientist named Martin Lindauer.

One day in 1949, Lindauer was gazing at a swarm of bees when he noticed something unusual. A few bees were performing waggle dances – the movements that bees use to tell each other where nectar is located. But these particular waggle dances weren’t quite the same as normal. For one, the dancers weren’t carrying any pollen, as they normally would. Plus, a lot of them seemed to be dirty – one was covered with soot, another with brick dust, and yet another with what seemed to be flour.

Lindauer had a suspicion. Had these bees been out scouting for a new home?

It took years of experiments, but Lindauer eventually confirmed his hypothesis – and, later, the author continued this line of research in the United States. The more the scientists uncovered about the complex process by which bees make the life-or-death decision of where to build their home, the more impressed they became with the bees’ democratic debating skills. These days, the author even uses methods inspired by honeybees when he chairs meetings!

All in all, the nest-finding process is so enthralling that it’s worth examining in detail. And that’s what we’ll do in the next few blinks.

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