Cornell professor and chair of neurobiology and behavior Thomas Seeley has been fascinated with bees for much of his life. His new book Honeybee Democracy (Princeton University Press) steps way beyond entomology and apiculture by suggesting the swarming habits of Apis melllifera in decision making as “analogous to how the nervous system works in complex brains.”
The story of how honeybees make a democratic decision based on a face-to-face, consensus-seeking assembly is certainly important to behavioral biologists interested in how social animals make group decisions. I hope it will also prove important to neuroscientists studying the neural basis of decision making, for there are intriguing similarities between honeybee swarms and primate brains in the ways that they process information to make decisions.… One important lesson that we can glean from the bees…is that even in a group composed of friendly individuals with common interests, conflict can be a useful element in a decision-making process. That is, it often pays a group to argue things carefully through to find the best solution to a tough problem.
Seeley goes on to compare the multitude of bees to the multitude of cells in a body, working together in a form of “collective intelligence…without an overseer to create a functional unit whose abilities far transcend those of its constituents”.