May 24, 2011

Bees for Democracy

Bee collecting pollen
Every spring, there are bees looking for new homes. Sometimes their hives have been destroyed. Sometimes the hives are simply too small for the growing bee community. Whatever the reason, when a group of bees needs to select a new home, they do so with a mixture of campaigning, voting, and interpretive dance.

According to Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, this is the cool part. The queen doesn't say, "Here's where we're going!" She's not in charge. The decision is made collectively, bottom-up, and it's done by "voting."

Ten thousand animals need a place to go. Three hundred of them form a kind of house-hunting "Senate." They're the older, more experienced bees. They fly off looking for options: How about that nice hole on the elm tree? Or how about this even nicer hole in the beech tree?

Bees communicate through what has come to be known as "waggle dancing", so each bee dances in favor of it's favorite new home option. Each will repeat its dance several times, while other bees copy the dance for their choice. This is how they vote. Eventually, the bees reach a consensus. How? Because there are no fanatics among bees. Once a bee has repeated it's dance several times and not earned a majority of followers, it gives up its dance and falls in with the majority of dancers. Thus, a new bee home is chosen.