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Honeybee Democracy Hardcover – October 10, 2010
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Entomologist E. O. Wilson calls honeybees �humanity�s greatest friend among the insects.� Cornell professor and ardent beekeeper Seeley (The Wisdom of the Hive, 1995) examines how bees make decisions on where to found a new hive. Beekeepers have known for years that overcrowded hives will swarm�the majority of the hive�s workers will take off with the old queen and move into a new home, while the remaining bees will rear a new queen in order to perpetuate the parental colony. How the homeless swarm of bees decides where to live, and the settling of the debates among the scout bees who have found potential homesites, forms the basis of this intriguing look at how social insects arrive at a consensus. Seeley takes the reader through the research process, discussing the findings of earlier scientists, the process of field research on bee swarms, and the understanding of what the resulting data means in the lives of the bees. Forager bees become scout bees who, after returning to the swarm, perform a �dance� to show where and how far away the potential site is. Other scouts check out these locations and join in the dance for whichever site is preferred. This �arguing� over the best site eventually results in all the scouts agreeing and the whole swarm then moving to its new abode. Now if we humans could only make decisions so democratically. --Nancy Bent
One of Financial Times (FT.com)'s Books of the Year in Nonfiction Round-Up in the Science & Environment list for 2010
"Dr. Seeley is an engaging guide. His enthusiasm and admiration for honeybees is infectious. His accumulated research seems truly masterly, doing for bees what E.O. Wilson did for ants."--Katherine Bouton, New York Times
"Although the details are complicated, Seeley's explanations are remarkably clear. The text is abundantly illustrated with figures that are cleverly simplified in comparison to how they might appear in scientific journals. For readers who may be less passionate about the particulars of honeybee life, Seeley also reveals parallels between the way swarms make decisions and how the human brain sorts through conflicting neuron signals to reach decisions. He also provides a few pointers on how rules of honeybee democracy may be applied to decision-making in human groups, with minimal dependence on a leader, vigorous competition among a diversity of viewpoints, and a method for determining a majority-based resolution."--May Berenbaum, Times Literary Supplement
"Seeley's work--extended over years and summarized clearly and engagingly here--is a model of biological research that builds bridges to the social sciences, and to the practical arts of institutional design for humans."--Adrian Vermeule, New Republic's The Book
"[S]plendid."--John Whitfield, Nature
"[E]ngaging and fascinating. . . . Seeley writes with infectious enthusiasm. . . . Honeybee Democracy offers wonderful testament to his career of careful investigation of a remarkable natural phenomenon. The breadth and depth of the studies reported in it should inspire all students of animal behavior."--Science
"To illustrate bee decision making, Seeley details how swarms choose a new home. Seeley presents his material with charm, and the bees' system of house-hunting becomes surprising and awe-inspiring."--Science News
"In Honeybee Democracy, Seeley carefully narrates his many seasons of experiments using plywood next boxes that could be moved and modified at will. He discovered what bees like in a home, how scouts measure the dark interiors of these boxes and most of all, how the swarm 'votes' to decide which nest to occupy. . . . Honeybee Democracy is a brilliant display of science at work, with each experiment explained and illustrated."--New Scientist
"[I]t is a book well worth studying. Within its pages we find out about an important aspect of the life of the honeybee (with some practical implications for beekeepers), how researchers work both in the field and in the laboratory, the objective way in which the experiments are carried out but, most of all, how in the seeking of a new home bees provide us with a model of true democratic behaviour which any group could use to its advantage. Indeed, the last chapter alone, 'Swarm Starts' would make an excellent minibook for anyone who is involved in decision making no matter what position they hold."--Beekeepers Quarterly
"Rather than presenting a dry review of his findings, Seeley intertwines them with his thought processes, anecdotes and generous appraisals of students and fellow scientists. His skill in writing a book with so much science in such simple language is admirable. Even a non-beekeeper can understand what he is trying to convey. The photographs are beautiful and the illustrations elegant."--Zachary Huang, Times Higher Education
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Try "The Fountainhead" instead.
If that were the book's only fault I would have given it a much higher rating, at least four stars, because Prof. Seeley is an intelligent and diligent man who has done some ingenious experiments demonstrating the complexities of honeybee behavior. If he had stopped there he would have written a useful monograph on the behavior of the most well-known eusocial insect. But he went further, perhaps because he believes it, and also perhaps because "honey-bee democracy" is a catchy title and would make more money than a dry scientific monograph. Whatever the motive, his attempt to relate honeybee behavior to human behavior is blindingly naive.
First of all, the honeybee society that Prof. Seeley describes is anything but a "democracy" in the human sense of the word. Yes, honeybees use a form of group decision making when searching for nesting sites for swarms, but the worker-bees making these decisions are not functioning as volitional decision-makers in the human sense: Rather they are functioning as little robot-clones of the queen bee, and their decision-making is in principle no more sophisticated than the decision-making involved when the single-celled protists of a slime mold coalesce into a multi-celled single organism under certain environmental conditions.
Secondly, humans are NOT honeybees, no matter how much he would like to believe it. Here are five suggestions Prof. Seeley says we should follow, based on his romanticized interpretation of honeybee behavior:
"1. Compose the decision-making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect.
2. Minimize the leader's influence on the group's thinking
3. Seek diverse solutions to the problem.
4. Aggregate the group's knowledge through debate
5. Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy, and speed."
In other words, we should all play nicely together. I wonder why the American Founding Fathers didn't think of that? Perhaps they knew something Prof. Seeley apparently hasn't yet realized, that men are not angels.
All this would be bad enough if he didn't ignore the plain evidence in front of his eyes that honeybees are not "democratic" at all. Here is his description of the process of selecting a new queen for a bee colony which has recently sent off multiple swarms: (p. 42)
"... if there are still multiple virgin queens in the nest, the workers will allow them to emerge freely. The first one out usually attempts to kill those still in their cells by dashing over the combs in search of cells containing queens, chewing small holes in their sides, and stinging the occupants. If, however, two or more virgin queens emerge together, they will fight to the death, seizing each other and attempting to sting. The battling queen bees grapple and twist, each one struggling fiercely to implant her venom-laden sting in her sister's abdomen. Ultimately, one queen succeeds and the other, fatally stricken, collapses in paralysis, falls from the comb, and soon dies. The merciless sororocide continues until just one virgin queen remains alive. Several days later the victor will make her mating flights and, once fully mated, start her egg laying. Soon her daughters and sons will populate the coveted parental nest."
Does this sound like democracy in action? Well, perhaps, if what you mean by "democracy" is something like the French or Bolshevik Revolution. Otherwise, it is reminiscent of the murderous dynastic quarrels of the European monarchies, or of the succession struggles of the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Turkish, Chinese, or Soviet empires. Or the political infighting in university faculties.
Maybe after all we humans do resemble the honeybees, just not in the way Prof. Seeley would have us believe.
First, the author's enthusiasm for his subject was commendable and contagious. He didn't romanticize bees, but I just enjoyed seeing such gladness and cheer in one's work.
Second, he gives a nice illustration of the methodology of a scientist and shows an example of the joy of good critical thinking skills. Instead of just declaring "honeybees do [X]," the author often says, "We observed honeybees doing [X], and were curious why -- here's why we think our investigations showed they do it that way."
Third, the author helps show how a complex system works. A honeybee colony has many small and rather simple units (like the neurons in a thinking brain) that can integrate and loop their inputs into a system where the action looks like it was being deliberately performed by a single "controller,' who turns out not to exist. This is how many social and economic systems work (including the internet and probably our minds) and if we understand how they work, the better we might understand today's complex and interconnected world. Honeybees have used complex social organization to (usually) adapt to change and it's hopeful that maybe we can do it too.
Fourth, the author suggests excellent ways to apply the complexity of honeybee society to our own society. Philosophers have dreamed up all kinds of abstract social schemes, and most have proven impractical or downright murderous. The author, instead, suggests five Rules of adaptable, effective complex social organization: emphasize shared interest and mutual respect, minimize dictatorship, seek diverse solutions with feedback, arrive at a consensus based on good information gathering, and use flexible and simple but quick and sound quorum decisions without wasting too much time getting everyone to agree with everything (again, this method is founded on respect and mutual interest rather than on pride).
Finally, the "little points" about the book are worth noting. I thought the graphs and photos were valuable, and although there is no formal Bibliography, the Notes provided plenty of insight into the sources he used as backup.
In short, I found this study of honeybees led to something vaster and more deep, and I hope you will too.