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Mares: Honeybee Democracy

03/01/11 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(HOST)  On this Town Meeting Day, commentator and beekeeper Bill Mares reflects on the decision-making process in human and honeybee societies.  

(MARES) Throughout recorded history and before, humans and honeybees have had a symbiotic relationship.  Human gratitude for the beeswax and honey has led writers from Virgil to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath to celebrate these furry flying insects.  In language that will seem uncanny to Vermonters, one such writer calls the beehive the most enduring of social utopias because it has "...such a wonderful combination of unity and freedom".
        
With their ceaseless activity, their manifold jobs, workplace harmony and self sacrifice, bees have served as metaphors for almost every political system.  That includes the monarchical, aristocratic, constitutional, imperial, republican (small R), absolutist, communist, anarchist and even fascist.  But not democratic (small D).
       
That is, until Dr. Thomas Seeley, a socio-biologist at Cornell University, last year published his new book called Honeybee Democracy.
           
Seeley is a genial genius with limitless curiosity, an elegant experimental sense and a graceful writing style.  He comes from the research succession that goes back to Karl von Frisch, who won a Nobel Prize for describing and defining the dance language that bees use to track nectar sources.   
           
In his book, Seeley  studies the deceptively simple question of how does a swarm of bees find a new home.  After two thirds of the bees have left the hive in one of those unnerving clouds, they set up temporary quarters.  Several hundred scout bees then sally forth into the surrounding landscape of perhaps 20,000 acres.  They  locate a dozen or more possibilities, evaluate each with respect to multiple criteria, and then bring that information back for the colony to digest and collectively select a favorite that best fulfills the bees’ needs for sufficiently spacious and highly protective accommodations.
        
During his research, Seeley studied group decision-making in other species like geese and whales, but particularly in humans.  His laboratory for that was the Vermont town meeting, where his mentor was UVM Professor Frank Bryan, the world’s expert on that form of government.          
         
Of course, Seeley found significant differences between humans and bees.  But he also found three compelling similarities in the decision-process: 1. Scout bees carry on a full and free debate on the relative merits of the sites.  2. Their group decisions arise from the freely given information of several hundred individuals.  And 3. The home group can process information from multiple sources and evaluate the relative attraction of different sites.  
         
Frank Bryan believes that Seeley’s work can benefit political scientists by emphasizing the importance of "rules of order," which give order and discipline to contentious debate.  
       
I would add that, having spent almost 40 years with millions of bees, one of their most endearing qualities for today’s political climate is their civility.
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