Every so often, a honeybee queen leaves the hive where she was born to found a new colony. Along with thousands of workers, she has to figure out a good place to live. But how does this huge group decide where to locate their new home? This video reveals their process — and sheds light on human consensus-building too.
Photo by Alex Wild
At 30 minutes, this is much longer than your typical "cool animals doing stuff" video on YouTube, and that's because filmmaker Frederick Dunn is giving us an intimate picture of one of the most dangerous times in a colony's life. We begin by watching a huge knot of bees that have formed on a tree — yes, that entire blob is basically solid bees. When a queen builds her new hive, there are several months before new bees are born, and the entire hive often dies out before that happens. So this is a terrifying adventure for the new hive, and they proceed cautiously.
Worker bees have been scouting the nearby area, looking for a nice spot to put their new home. As they return, they do the "waggle dance," an elaborate pantomime that bees do to communicate the locations of flowers and other objects to each other. Scientists recently deciphered this form of communication, discovering that the bee's position indicates the angle of the sun relative to the location, and the intensity of the "waggle" indicates distance. Yes, the bees are actually communicating pretty sophisticated information to each other about where the hive should go.
Over time, we see that more and more bees are doing the same waggle dance. A consensus is being reached, and every member of the young hive needs to understand where they're going before they take off to begin their new lives together. It's fascinating to watch how social insects reach consensus in this video — it's kind of like a game of sign language telephone. Let's go to the east! About a mile away! There's a perfect tree there, near lots of flowers!
Eventually, when almost everybody is waggling, the bees suddenly take off all at once. But they are not following a leader. They are carrying out a group decision, with incredible loyalty — not to the queen, but to each other.
It isn't that much different structurally from the ways that humans reach consensus in a group. A few people broadcast similar opinions to their friends, and then those friends pass that opinion along to their friends — and before you know it, everybody is doing the same waggle dance. The key thing is that each of us makes an individual decision to do what the group is doing, just like a bee picking her own individual flight path through the swarm. What looks like a mindless herd from the outside feels, from the inside, like a bunch of personal choices.
Of course there are several major differences between human and bee consensus, not the least of which is that we are not part of a hive mind, despite how much the internet often feels like one. Also, we don't usually make decisions based on trees and flowers, though maybe we should.
Still, we are enough like bees that it begs the question: Why can't we make group decisions as easily as the consensus-loving participants in the Occupy movement wish we could?
The basic answer comes down to conflict. Though people come to group decisions in a way that looks like our swarming bees, we lack a fundamental social feature that bee culture has. We do not have a mating class. I don't mean that we lack sex education, nor porn stars. I mean that we don't have a special class of people who mate. All of us mate, all the time, and produce a bunch of babies with different combinations of genetic material.
Bees, on the other hand, have a rigid division of labor in their society and it extends right into the world of sex. The only bees that ever have sex are the queen and her drones. They are the mating class. Though the queen bee is often portrayed in pop culture as the leader of her hive, in reality she is more like a baby-making slave machine. Sure, she has lots of workers to take care of her and feed her nice bee byproducts, but she only gets to fly when she mates and creates a new colony. The rest of the time, all she does is lay eggs. The drones have it even worse, of course. They're born, they chase down a queen, they mate with her if they're lucky, they get their sexual organs ripped out during aerial sex, and then they die. Usually a queen rips out the organs of a handful of mates, just for a little diversity.
As a result, all the members of a bee colony are the offspring of one queen and a few drones whose sperm she's still got percolating away in her body. They're all at least half sisters, and usually more. Plus, they never engage in any kind of sexual conflict. Bees have relegated sexual conflict to their mating class, whose lives are hardly enviable.
Humans may share a lot of genetic similarities, but we don't live in giant cities comprised entirely of our sisters. You may also have noticed that a lot of us experience sexual conflict and jealousy. Those may be biological reasons why our consensus-building doesn't proceed as smoothly as it does among those swarming honeybees. It's also a reason why scientists who study social insects don't believe that humans could ever form a hive mind. As biologist Joan Strassman put it to me a couple of years ago, we simply suffer from too much conflict.
We're a weird social species, though, because we exhibit so many traits of hive mind creatures like bees. Unlike social animals such as chimps or birds, we build hive-like cities to house millions of people. But we also disagree and make war on each other rather than just taking up the waggle dances of our neighbors. We seem to move between hive mind thinking and conflict-ridden individuality.
Unlike bees, we also have a culture that is incredibly complex. We have things to say that go way beyond location data about plants. Very few of our conversations could be summed up in a waggle dance, though some could. So the barrier between humans and perfect, consensus harmony has both a biological and a cultural basis. Maybe there's a point at which cultural complexity always generates conflict.
That said, there's something we can learn from watching other consensus-building animals — especially ones who build structures that are the closest thing in nature to cities. When it comes to fundamental issues, like food and shelter, the bees reach total consensus. As a result, every bee is fed and housed. I'm not saying we should become bees in the bedroom, or stop having conflicts over the latest Star Trek movie. But we could certainly use a little more bee thinking when it comes to basic needs.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.