What can honeybees teach us about wisdom? One person who knows is Cornell University’s Professor Thomas D. Seeley, the world’s leading expert on bee behaviour. Seeley’s particular interest is the decision making of swarming bees, sometimes referred to as smarm intelligence.
What matters most today is not only to clarify what wisdom is and why it matters,
but to understand how to go about developing collective wisdom.
— Peter Senge, systems scientist
The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors,
but because she labors for others.
— St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, 347-407
For over 40 years he has conducted ingenious experiments to discover the rules honeybees use in collective decision making for survival and adaption to changing circumstances.
What was it that sparked Seeley’s interest in bees to make a career of it?
It was July 1974 and Tom Seeley had a major decision to make – a decision that would have a major impact on his future. He had just completed his undergraduate science degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and now had three medical schools offering him a place to complete his medical degree. Should he accept one of these offers or follow his real passion and pursue a different career entirely?
Thomas Dyer Seeley was born in a small town in Pennsylvania on 17 June 1952, the youngest of five children of John G. Seeley PhD and his wife Catherine. At that time Dr Seeley chaired the floriculture program at Penn State University. In 1956 Tom’s father was appointed the department head of floriculture and ornamental horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State.
Ithaca is located in the Finger Lakes Region of central New York, a four-hour drive from New York City and not far from Niagara Falls. Ithaca is known for its spectacular waterfalls and gorges, thus the slogan “Ithaca is Gorges.” The Seeleys settled in Ellis Hollow, a rural community just a short distance from downtown Ithaca. Seeley writes about growing up in Ellis Hollow:
I spent much time alone exploring the wild areas around our home: shady hardwood forests on the steep hillsides, sunlit abandoned fields where the land slopes gently, and winding Cascadilla Creek connecting broad swamps in the valley bottom.
On one of his excursions he happened to come across two wooden boxes of bee hives placed there by a bee keeper. He was entranced by the comings and goings of the foraging bees he observed:
I loved visiting these hives. Sitting beside one, I could see bees landing heavily at the entrance with loads of brightly colored pollen, I could hear the hum of bees fanning their wings to ventilate their nest, and I could smell the aroma of ripening honey. That thousands of insects could live together so densely and harmoniously, and could build delicate wax combs filled with delicious honey, was an almost miraculous wonder that left a deep impression. No less impressive was what I saw when I lay in the tall grass beside these hives: thousands of humming bees crisscrossing the blue summer sky like shooting stars.
This interest in bees continued right through his high school days. While his peers where interested in sports, motorcycles and girls, he was spellbound by bees. He was a good student though and graduated from Ithaca High School’s Class of 1970.
In the Fall of 1970 Seeley began the freshman year at Dartmouth College with the eventual aim of becoming a physician. Bees could be a hobby. During his summer vacation periods he came back to Ithaca and worked at the Dyce Laboratory for Honey Bee Studies under Roger A. Morse, an entomology professor at Cornell University.
In 1974 he graduated summa cum laude (highest distinction) in Chemistry. By this stage he realised that he had more interest in entomology than medicine. His dilemma was should he continue with is goal of being a physician with a secure future or should he make a career out of his passion for studying the behaviour of honeybees.
The tipping point was receiving advice that he was accepted at Harvard University under the world-famous entomologist and author Professor Edward O. Wilson. Wilson had joined the Harvard faculty in 1956 and had made an enormous contribution to the understanding of social insects — ants, bees, wasps and termites — through his insightful book, The Insect Societies, published in 1971. This work introduced the concept of sociobiology, the scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior among animals and humans.
This is exactly the subject Seeley wanted to explore but focusing on the behaviour of honeybees. He was particularly interested in following on from the pioneering work of Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) and Martin Lindauer (1918–2008) in Germany. It took von Frisch’s decades of work to decipher the waggle dance that a bee performs within the hive to communicate to other bees where a good source of pollen or nectar is located. For that work he received the Nobel Prize in 1973. Lindauer, under the guidance of von Frisch, had researched how a colony of bees made decisions given that there is no hierarchy of leadership. According to Seeley, three sociobiological studies are among Lindauer’s most important scientific contributions: the division of labour in honeybee colonies; water economy and temperature regulation; and house hunting by honeybee swarms.
Seeley was fortunate to have as his initial thesis advisor a recent arrival from Germany, Professor Bert Hölldobler, who had studied under Lindauer, and would later collaborate with E.O. Wilson in writing two books on the sociobiology of ants and other social insects.
With all these renowned researchers in the forefront of discoveries, what else could Seeley offer? It turns out there are still numerous questions to be answered in the study of social insects.
Seeley was awarded his PhD in 1978 then spent the next few years at Harvard University and Yale University before joining the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in 1986 where he’s been ever since.
Over the years he has authored five books and written or contributed to more than 300 scientific papers and articles on bees and beekeeping. His 2010 book, Honeybee Democracy, has been nominated by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five best books ever written on animal survival.
Seeley’s major contributions have been to go beyond the findings of Martin Lindauer, particular the behaviour of swarming bees.
But Seeley is not the only person studying bees. There are hundreds of scientists, academics and other researchers involved in countries throughout the world. Why?
Why study bees?
The primary mission of honeybees is survival and reproduction while at the same time being in a symbiotic relationship with flowering plants to allow the plants to reproduce through pollination.
Bees, then, are vitally important to us for the food we eat. According to Marla Spivak, professor in entomology at the University of Minnesota, bees are the most important pollinators of many of the fruits, vegetables and grains we eat. In fact, bees are responsible for pollinating around one-sixth of the flowering plants worldwide and about 400 different types of agricultural plants. So, next time when you have a plate of food in front of you, just remember that bees played a part in pollinating the food you’re eating or else the for the animals we consume. And of course honey and beeswax are two other key products that come courtesy of bees.
It’s therefore important that we understand how to manage bee colonies to ensure they continue to thrive. However honeybees are disappearing globally at an alarming rate due to pesticides, parasites, disease and habitat as well as some unknown causes. This has prompted the European Union and the United States to take measures to control this reduction. For example, a major initiative has been ordered by President Obama with a strategy statement announced in May 2015.
Other researchers are studying the decision making processes used by bees individually and as a colony. Although a bee’s brain is made up of 960,000 neurons – compared to the human brain with 86 billion neurons – bees have amazing cognitive abilities. Psychiatrist Dr Jon Lieff summarises the accomplishments of individual foraging bees:
• They use abstract thought and symbolic language.
• They routinely solve the advanced mathematical problem of the travelling salesman.
• They mix medications for their hive and know when a fungus is dangerous.
• They distinguish landscapes scenes, types of flowers, shapes and patterns.
• Their scouts gather for information on sources of flowers and potential sites for hives.
• They learn categories, sequences, combinations, and the changes of future rewards.
The knowledge gained from these brain studies is used in business decision making and strategy as well as advanced development in cybernetics and autonomous robots for commercial and military applications.
The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is just one of around 25,000 species of bees. They are all descended from an ancestral species of vegetarian wasp that lived approximately 100 million years ago.
For thousands of years humans have recognised both the value and the beauty of their existence. Other than humans, bees are the most studied organisms on earth. But it is only within the last 70 years or so that we are learning the secrets of this incredible powerful superorganism.
One can examine their individual and their collective activities using the Can-Do Wisdom Framework:
The Can-Do Wisdom Framework
The Honeybee as an Individual
As an individual honeybee, she will learn, live for and lead others for the common good.
Live is the link between the I Can and I Do quadrants. In essence a worker honeybee lives and works for the hive, not for herself. She spends the bulk of her time working in the hive. A bee will die if she is unable to find her hive and access the food source that sustains her.
An individual worker bee raised in early Spring or Summer bee will live for around 35 to 40 days. Over this period of time she will undertake a variety of roles depending on her age.
After emerging from the cell as a fully formed infertile female bee on the first day, the work she performs is cleaning out empty cells. This activity lasts three days.
For the next nine days she will carry out several assignments within the hive. She can act as an undertaker, removing any diseased or dead bees, or as a nurse to young bees, or as an attendant to the queen.
From the twelfth day she will receive nectar and pollen from older foraging bees and deposit these in the cells reserved for this purpose. She will also take her part with other bees in using their wings to fan the nest to achieve a constant temperature within the hive. Another task is to begin to produce beeswax to build new wax comb.
From day 18 she will take on guard duty at the hive entrance. Any intruders who do not have the distinctive scent of the colony will be ejected.
From day 22 she will also start to venture outside the hive on familiarisation flights, circling the hive and gradually moving further away to gain her bearings and remember land marks so she can find her way back to the hive.
During the remainder of her life as a mature worker she may take trips of two- to three-miles distant from the hive. She is likely to visit ten flowers each minute and may visit more than 600 flowers before returning to the hive with her pollen baskets full. Upon returning to the hive, she will deliver the pollen to the younger bees, take a rest, eat some nectar for her food and then proceed on another foraging trip.
In essence a worker honeybee lives and works for the hive, not for herself. She spends the bulk of her time working in the hive. A bee will die if she is unable to find her hive and access the food source that sustains her.
Throughout the life of a honeybee, extensive learning takes place. For the first half of her life she will perform internal duties. By the time she is ready to venture outside the hive she will have gained experience of all these operations and even as an adult bee will be able to step in and perform any task where she finds a need. There is no hierarchical system; there is no one in charge to tell her what to do.
A bee must learn how to collect honey and nectar from flowers. Jürgen Tautz, Professor of Biology at the University of Würzburg, Germany, explains that the sensory world of honeybees is superbly adapted to the signals transmitted by flowers:
Flowers, through their colors, stand out from a forest of green leaves—bees can see colors. Flowers are scented—bees have a very highly developed sense of smell. Honeybees have an innate sense of color. Given the choice of various colors, naive bees will fly toward blue and yellow. Blue and yellow hues occur very frequently in flowers, and many other flower colors contain strong elements of the blue and yellow wavelengths. Most important for the honeybee is the ability to assign different meanings to different colors in learning tasks. . . . honeybees rapidly learn to associate different localities and different times with particular decisions. Flowers at different localities produce different amounts of nectar at different times of the day, a factor accounted for by bees when planning the most productive foraging flights. Honeybees will follow a daily work program, and carry out the correct task at the right locality at the right time.
Those adult bees in the nest who are available to go out and forage for food need to find where good sources of pollen and nectar are located. Instead of venturing out doing their own scouting, they will “listen” to the stories of returning bees who indicate through their dance routine the location and distance of sources. Since the hive is in darkness, bees use the senses of touch and smell to receive the message. These sensors are located in their antennae plus there are very sensitive branched hairs over a bee’s body which allow a bee to feel objects with these hairs.
When an inexperienced bee first starts out foraging for nectar or pollen, she will be very inefficient. For example, she may take 20 minutes to arrive at a recommended site compared 20 seconds for an experienced forager. It will take more than a week before an individual honeybee gradually increases her foraging performance. This has proved to be a disaster for some colonies if for some reason older foraging bees have died out prematurely. It means the colony is likely to collapse from lack of food because the younger bees cannot keep up with the demand.
A hive needs more or less pollen, nectar and water at various times. If a worker bee returns to a hive and finds she has a long wait for her load to be taken from her, she knows that her particular load is no longer required. On the other hand if she is unloaded immediately, she knows more is needed.
These are just some of the insights researchers are discovering about bees’ learning abilities.
One of the key aspects of leadership is sharing information. Only in the twentieth century it was discovered that honeybees have an ingenious way of communicating within a hive.
Lead involves communicating certain knowledge held by an individual honeybee to other bees within the hive. She does this through a dance routine.
When a foraging honeybee or a scout finds a good source of food she will remember the direction from the hive by the angle of the sun. Even if the sun is obscured by clouds, she is still able to detect the polarised light. She also knowns the distance travelled by knowing the energy expended in her flight. When she returns to the hive she will perform her “waggle” dance within the hive. The angle of the central portion of the dance indicates to other bees the direction to the food source and the length of time she takes to move in that direction is proportional to the distance. As it is dark inside the hive, other bees will interpret the message through feeling. They will then know where food is available by following the directions.
This was a key finding of Karl von Frisch at the University of Munich in 1944. But there was much more to discover, especially the role of scouts in selecting new nest sites.
For honeybees, lead also means taking the initiative. If a bee sees something that needs to be done, such as cleaning out debris from the nest, then she will do it. No one tells her what to do.
Community Decisions – The Swarm
As a colony, the bee community will initiate, implement and institute decisions and actions as a means of survival and reproduction. A suitable home for the colony is mandatory for this work to continue.
With the coming of each spring, and if the honeybee colony has grown to a sufficient size, there will be a swarm of bees to find a new nest. The queen and around ten-thousand bees or two-thirds of the population will suddenly depart to find a new home.
In the We Can quadrant bees have their “culture” – their customs and social behaviour. Tickner Edwards, author of the book The Bee-master of Warrilow, once said, “The bees have their definite plan for life, perfected through countless ages, and nothing you can do will ever turn them from it.”
Just how this superorganism of bees goes about this decision-making process has been the primary interest of Tom Seeley for almost 40 years. Bear in mind that there is no hierarchy of decision making in a bee hive. While the queen is the heart of the hive, she does not dictate who does what and when.
There are three major decision points made by the hive in leading up to a hive swarming. The first is the preparation for the swarm to take place. This involves the rearing of 10 or more queens – one of which will become the new queen of the existing hive. Other worker bees are preparing for the move by gorging themselves on honey and remaining quiet.
Just what triggers this preparation stage is not fully understood but most likely to involves the sense of overcrowding in the hive.
The next major decision point is the collective decision to suddenly exit from the existing home followed by the choice of the best site for their future home.
Implement is the link between the We Can quadrant and the We Do quadrant.
The initiators of the move of the queen to form a new colony are the scout bees. Several dozen experienced foragers take on this role. In late spring, when the days are sunny and warm, they alert their docile sisters that it’s time to warm up before departing. The scouts do this by making a piping sound, intermittent at first but later building into a continuous scream-like sound.
The final signal for departure comes about when the scout bees perform a “buzz run”, buzzing their wings and randomly making contact with the now warmed-up bees.
The swarm will initially travel a short distance and typically forms a temporary resting place under a tree branch before moving to the eventual nesting site.
Over the next hours or even a day or so the brood will stay in a cluster while several dozen scouts start searching the surrounding district for suitable nesting sites.
The scouts know what makes for an ideal nesting site. For wild bees, these are typically tree hollows with certain characteristics. For example, the cavity volume needs to be large enough to support a fully developed colony and the entrance needs to be small and high enough to be safe from predetors.
In Germany, Martin Lindauer had found in 1951 that a scout returning from visiting a potential site would advertise its existence and position by performing a waggle dance back in the hive. The scout was inviting others to examine this site. Other scouts would advertise their findings in the same way. However after a few hours or in some cases a few days, scouts would be advertising one particular site which would end up being the chosen site. But Lindauer didn’t have the technology to be able to understand how this choice was made from the available alternatives.
It was only when Seeley was able to employ the use of affordable video equipment from 1996 onwards that he was able to start to understand how a colony made the site selection.
His experiments showed that there is an information accumulation phase for the colony whereby the scout bees present their findings about the suitability of the sites they have discovered. When a scout has found what she considers to be an ideal site, she will advertise it with a vigorous dance. This encourages other scouts to examine the site as well and in turn report their findings with waggle dances as well. Some sites will result in other scouts supporting earlier findings with enthusiasm while other sites reporting back will lack enthusiasm. Gradually the focus shifts to the site gaining most supporters. At some point the scouts backing poor quality sites are given the message to quit. By this time there is a quorum of support for the best quality site.
Once the quorum has been achieved, the scouts take on the role of priming the bees into preparing to swarm again. They do this again by using a piping signal. This activity lasts for about an hour before a final flurry of activity by scouts – the buzz run – to initiate some ten thousand bees to form a moving swarm over the next 60 seconds. The scouts then lead the swarm to the location of the new home which may be several kilometres distant.
Institute is the physical reality of an operating hive in the We Do quadrant.
Institute is also the feedback path for individual foraging bees to learn the requirements of the hive; whether she should collect water, pollen, nectar or resin. If, for example, she has returned to the hive with a load of pollen and other workers are slow to unload her, then she knows that pollen is low on the list of requirements for the hive.
Writer Craig Hamilton believes we humans can discover a depth of wisdom far beyond what is available to individuals alone:
In the emerging science of complexity theory, the notion that wholes are greater than the sum of their parts is no longer a matter of poetic fancy. Studying the complex behavior of beehives and ant colonies, cities and economies, researchers are discovering that when individuals combine forces, higher-order collective properties emerge that cannot be explained by studying the individuals in isolation. A close look at an ant colony or beehive reveals a remarkably orderly and surprisingly complex society—surprising, that is, given the fact that ants and bees have brains that are less than one-millionth the size of a human brain. Does that mean that they are all just working automatons taking orders from the more intelligent “queen”? Not likely. It turns out that the queen herself is equally unintelligent and has no executive power whatsoever. “Mother” would perhaps be a better name for her, as her anointed role owes entirely to her maternal capacities.
Human society relies on groups to make good collective choices. But it doesn’t always work. The honeybee rules for group decision-making that Tom Seeley has discovered demonstrate a time-tested approach for achieving collective wisdom. Seeley says there are five lessons we can take from these swarming bees:
1: Compose the decision-making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect
2: Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking
3: Seek diverse solutions to the problem
4: Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate
5: Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy, and speed.
James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, believes that any group that follows these rules will become smarter: “The analogy is really quite powerful. The bees are predicting which nest site will be best, and humans can do the same thing, even in the face of exceptionally complex decisions.”
In summary, bees are incredibly successful organisms due to their ability to cooperate both with their fellow bees and with nature. We can learn a lot more from them for our own benefit and for the benefit of the world.
 Thomas D. Seeley, Honeybee Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Seeley, Honeybee Democracy.
 Jon Lieff, “The Remarkable Bee Brain,” http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/the-remarkable-bee-brain-2#sthash.JtSQIzSt.dpuf
 Jurgen Tautz, The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2008)
 Tickner Edwards, The Bee-master of Warrilow (London: The “Pall Mall’ Press, 1907).
 Craig Hamilton, “Come Together: Can we discover a depth of wisdom far beyond what is available to individuals alone?”, http://evolutionarycollective.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Come-Together.pdf
 Seeley, Honeybee Democracy.
 Virgina Morell, Inside Animal Minds: The New Science of Animal Intelligence (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2012)
 Seeley, Honeybee Democracy.