Why Honey Bees Are Smarter Than People

By Shlomo Maital

Thomas Seeley

  My blog has been silent for some time; I was unable to upload blogs to WordPress.com during a 10-day visit to China.   I’ve returned with many ideas for blogs in my suitcase, and will soon catch up and zero the deficit.

   On the long flight from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, 12 hours, I reread Thomas Seeley’s wonderful book Honeybee Democracy. Seeley is a biology professor, passionate about understanding bees, and his research has revealed startling insights into bees.

   One of those insights is that bees, which have tiny tiny brains, are smarter than humans, when it comes to making decisions – because they do so cleverly, as a ‘swarm’ or group. Bees’ brains are about 20,000 times less massive compared to human brains. It is the size of one sesame seed. The honey bee brain is actually ten times denser compared to a mammal’s brain. It can do amazing things, like calculate distance and angles and direction and return to a nest site or flower site miles away.

   Bees, sometimes 10,000 of them, gather in a ‘swarm’, a mass of bees hanging together in one spot. Scout bees travel far and wide, often several kilometers, and return to report to the ‘nation’ of bees on prospective sites. Seeley tells how these scouts report on their findings, by doing a dance. The dance tells the other bees whether the site is great (big, 40 liters, small entrance) or just adequate (15 liters, big entrance). If great – the dance is rapid, vigorous, compelling. If adequate – the dance is, well, a slow waltz. Several such scouts dance. The other bees watch.

   Then – little by little, the other bees join the dance they favor. Eventually, and it doesn’t take long, the swarm reaches a whole-swarm consensus on the prospective site and then, as if on a signal, takes off, in just 60 seconds, and flies to the new site, where the nest is built, honeycombs erected, honey stored, and the queen bee sets up her throne and baby factory.

   But why are the bees smarter than humans? Two reasons. First – dissent, then commit. That actually is a widely-used mantra at Intel Corp., where fierce debate is cultivated (like the scout bees), but then – everyone must commit to the final decision, wholeheartedly.

   But even more important – the dancing scout bees convey information to the other bees, that includes intensity. That is, here is where a new site is, here is what it looks like, and here is how enthusiastic I am about it. Other bees join in, to show THEIR enthusiasm, by the rapidity of their dance. Human democracy is a zero-one process, where you vote for a candidate. But what aobut how much you like the candidate? Is it a “1”? a “5”? or a 10? Who knows? No way to tell.  Bee democracy includes intensity, not just zero-one choice.

   The bees use intensity of emotion. Humans do not. How many times do we vote for a candidate while holding our nose, because he or she is the best of a really bad lot of losers. What if we could indicate this in the democratic process? What if we voted for a candidate, and added 1-10 how much we liked him or her? Then added up both the intensities and the votes, perhaps by weighting?

   Humans retain their views, after the election, and as the Republicans, do everything possible to sabotage the elected Democratic President and his plans. Bees always form a consensus; they have a process that usually ensures it. In rare occasions where swarms split into two, and go off to two different sites, they often don’t survive.  

   Seeley writes, “one valuable lesson we can learn from the bees is that holding an open and fair competition of ideas is a smart solution to the problem of making a decision, based on a pool of information dispersed across a group of individuals.”

   I watched the Republican Presidential debate while in China. Open competition of ideas? Ideas? Not one. Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Dispersed across a pool of individuals? Tea Party? Makes one yearn for the little dancing bees, waggling their behinds.