peteg's blog

Thomas Seeley: Honey Bee Democracy

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How did Seeley get away without the omnipresent disjunctive subtitle? I paid $AU26.28 to Amazon UK for this in March 2011, back when they had free shipping to Australia. It sat on the shelf for ages, and it has similarly taken me weeks to get around to writing about it. As a result I've read and re-read some sections a few times, and perhaps some of it not at all.

This is an excellent book. Seeley makes it completely clear why people would be passionate about this stuff, and explains the scientific method in a way that should abide with everyone who went to high school (one might hope). As he is a prof writing about his career-long love affair, the story gets eyeglazingly-detailed at some points, and the logic of the experiments sometimes gets lost; but for all that, it is a marvellous read.

It is, of course, difficult to extract lessons for humans from these insects; see, for instance Rob Dunn in Slate. Seeley is careful to limit his opinions to human situations similar enough to the bees, for instance by requiring that they share the same goal and are plausibly honest with each other. He is adverse to drawing some other conclusions; on p227 (and elsewhere) he empirically observes that only bees that pay (by visiting the proposed nesting site) get to vote, which contravenes notions of universal suffrage but is familiar from history, e.g. the Federalist arguments about balancing democracy against mob rule in the U.S., and the situation in the Australia of the 19th century. The bees' strategy/algorithm requires honest representation and shared objectives/values; as Seeley himself demonstrates through his experiments, the swarm is very easy to manipulate, and so one might conclude that we learn nothing about robust distributed decision making in the presence of distorting factors. I would further claim that the social insects show that there is no wisdom in becoming more specialised. Efficiency yes, wisdom no.

Slate also has some fantastic hi-res photos of bees.