Review: Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley [Vol. 3, #47]

December 23, 2010 — 1 Comment


A Review of

Honeybee Democracy.
Thomas Seeley.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon

Reviewed by Mary Bowling.

There’s something about honeybees that captures – and holds onto – the interest of people who come into contact with them.  It’s the same for almost all beekeepers, and it has been for ages.  People who work with bees love them, are intrigued, captivated, and mesmerized by them, Thomas D. Seeley – the author of this book – notwithstanding.  So what is that something that causes people to fall for them and not just for their honey?  They are a superorganism, a collection of thousands of tiny, cold-blooded insects that together function something akin to a warm-blooded animal.  Bees don’t maintain their own body temperature, but a hive does. Bees don’t live more than a season, but a hive does.  Most bees don’t reproduce, but a hive does.  Bees don’t analyze information and make decisions based on that information, but a hive does.

Honeybee Democracy represents years of research on the part of Seeley and collaborators into the habits of a swarm of bees as it chooses a new home.  The book details various experiments performed by Seeley in order to test his and some of his predecessors’ hypotheses about several aspects of the behavior of a swarm as it looks for a suitable place to live.  Each chapter contains charts, graphs and diagrams representing data collected during his many experiments with the swarms.  The experiments, when taken in total, provide evidence that a swarm functions in much the same way as a primate brain; gathering information from an array of sources, deciding which option is the best, and acting upon that decision as a unit.

The book’s findings, Seeley concludes towards the end of the book, can be applied to groups of people who want to make good decisions as a group but can’t or don’t want to rely on a strong central leader.  He cites the way in which a New England town meeting is conducted as one example of this kind of democratic decision-making process, and he makes some generalizations on ways in which groups may function effectively together to make decisions.

Because bees depend upon their nature as a superorganism for their very lives, it is vitally important that they are able to act together in ways that insure the best chance of survival for their hive. If this kind of life and the ability of these tiny insects to act in ways that represent something much more than just a bunch of bugs crawling around is attractive to people in general, then how much more so for church communities who are trying embody something that is much grander and more complete than just a bunch of folks wandering around? The intricacies of swarm behavior as presented in this book will be fascinating to serious bee enthusiasts and to the scientifically-minded. The possibilities that the findings hold for people are only touched upon here, but hold a lot of promise, especially for our churches.