Katherine Bouton in the New York Times:
What can we learn from the bees? Honeybees practice a kind of consensus democracy similar to what happens at a New England town meeting, says Thomas D. Seeley, author of “Honeybee Democracy.” A group comes to a decision through a consideration of options and a process of elimination.
The bees are making a life-and-death decision: where to establish a new hive. Choosing a site that is too exposed, too small or too close to the ground can be fatal. Swarms don’t always do it right, but they do succeed a remarkable amount of the time, with 10,000 or more bees following the advice and signals of a few hundred leaders to re-establish themselves in a new location every spring. Along the way they have to make sure the precious queen, fatter and more sluggish than the others and prone to take a rest stop, is not lost…
In the spring, when the hive’s stores are depleted and the virgin queens are still in their queen cups, peanut-shaped cells in the comb, being nurtured with a nutrient-rich secretion called royal jelly, about two-thirds of the hive detaches itself and flies off en masse, settling somewhere nearby, on a branch or a mailbox, in the familiar beard shape of a honeybee scrum. At this point a few hundred scouts take off in all directions, checking out several dozen potential new sites. They return to the hive one by one, indicating, by a waggle dance first analyzed by Martin Lindauer 60 years ago, both the location and the quality of the site.
Dr. Seeley and his colleagues have meticulously observed the process of decision making that follows, and his research reveals an astonishingly effective system.