The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee DemocracyI had originally planned to write a lunchtime series about Thomas Seeley's Honeybee Democracy, but I ended up regaling you with most of the salient facts in my posts about our first swarm and our attempts to catch said swarm.  Plus, you can read the cliff-notes version of the parts most relevant to beekeepers in Swarm Traps and Bait Hives.

Even though I'm sticking to writing only one post about the book, I do heartily recommend that anyone interested in honeybees check it out, especially the first half before the text gets technical.  The author studied under E.O. Wilson, and his work was also informed by the methods of Karl von Frisch, so Seeley's work is based on sound science, and is carefully explained so it's understandable by laypeople.

As you probably gathered, the book is all about swarm behavior of honeybees, but the author interjects observations about how the bees' version of democracy can inform our own.  The last chapter (which you can read as a stand-alone ebook) considers five lessons we can learn from the bees:

  • Build decision-making groups out of individuals who share interests and mutual respect.  (The bees do this the easy way --- the swarm only has one egg-layer, so if the queen perishes, so does all of their DNA.)
  • Minimize the leader's influence on the group's thinking.  (Although we think of the queen bee as a leader, she really doesn't make any decisions.)
  • Seek diverse solutions to the problem.  (When looking for a new home, a swarm usually sends out 300 to 500 scouts to search for possibilities, turning up around 13 to 34 potentials.)
  • Aggregate the group's knowledge through debate.  (Bees dance to show other bees the potential hive they've found, then those bees go out and look it over and decide whether to throw their support behind the site.)
  • Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy, and speed.  (The swarm chooses to lift off and fly to a new site only after about twenty to thirty bees are present at that site at any given time, which means that most (but not necessarily all) scouts have come over to their point of view.)

So, what do you think --- would these bee lessons carry over to human groups?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hi--sorry! Something technical seems to bekeeps\ing me from reading others' comments on this subject...what would you call this, in the bee's life style? Thanks!
Comment by adrianne Sat May 25 13:52:59 2013
Mom --- You're the first commenter on this post, so maybe that's what you're having trouble with?
Comment by anna Sat May 25 14:22:19 2013

Hi - I just ordered the book and linked to your post from my blog at because it seemed applicable. It's my first year and the learning curve is steep in beekeeping!

Comment by Katharina Sat May 25 15:35:57 2013

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