Book Review

Uli Ernst

Thomas D. Seeley:
Honeybee Democracy.

Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 20, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691147213
ISBN-13: 978-0691147215
Price: 23.95 EUR

Learning from Nature

Cornell University entomologist Tom Seeley makes use of “the wisdom of the bee hive”. Photo: Cornell University

Despite their tiny stature bees can provide Homo sapiens with many interesting role models. Entomologist Tom Seeley of Cornell University (see adjacent photo) tells us why.

You are terribly wrong if you assume that Honeybee Democracy is yet another entomological book solely for bee keepers, bug lovers and the like. Whilst telling the story of honeybees on a house-hunt, Thomas Seeley, a distinguished professor of behaviour biology at Cornell University (Ithaca, USA), distils the general rules of group decision making. These rules apply to insect societies and neurons in vertebrate brains as well as to human groups alike. Thus, they are also a topic of interest to social scientists and behavioural biologists. To prove this, Seeley makes use of the “wisdom of the hive” (the title of his previous book) to get the most out of his monthly faculty meetings.

The main lessons learned from an insect with a brain the size of a pin head are, as you might expect, rather simple (for example: minimise the leader’s influence). Yet they seem to be ignored by almost everybody, with sometimes devastating consequences. This was the case with the decision of then-president George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. Nota bene, the rules are not all new (see Page, S.E. The Difference. Princeton University Press, 2007), and maybe their biggest drawback is that they only apply to groups with common interests.

All have one desire

Whereas this is not often the case with human groups, honeybees looking for a new home all have one desire: to find the best nesting place among several dozen within an area as large as 70 km2.

In spring, honeybee colonies usually cast a swarm, when about two-thirds of the bees leave the hive, together with the queen. Nearby, they form a swarm cluster, where some ten thousand bees cling calmly and silently to the branch of a tree. Seeley’s review of, “the most wondrous example of how the multitude of bees in a hive […] work together” starts out with the observations of the German behavioural scientist, Martin Lindauer, to whom this book is dedicated. In the early 1950s, the ‘Grand Seigneur’ of German bee research, discovered that scout bees communicate the location (i.e. distance and direction) of potential nest sites using the famous waggle dance, which had been previously deciphered by the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch. Seeley describes not only the observations, experiments and conclusions that have been drawn since, he also shows how the research that he and his colleagues have been conducting over the past 60 years, on three continents, builds upon itself.

By following the development of several hypotheses, the conception and design of experiments to test these, and the ultimate rejection of alternative explanations, one learns the scientific method en passant. However, scientific research seldom follows a straight path, and often more is learned from “failed” experiments than from successful ones. And because science is an all too human enterprise, the path to knowledge and “truth” is paved with misunderstandings, errors and premature interpretations. Seeley, one of the authorities on honeybee behaviour, gives a detailed account of the circumstances and coincidences that have led to new discoveries (or delayed them for many years), and this is certainly one of the assets of Honeybee Democracy.

Anecdotes from a reseacher’s life

For instance, Seeley reveals how one of his sampling methods (paying 15$, or 15lb of honey, for a feral bee nest) introduced a bias into his data on the preferred height above ground of nest entrances: He didn’t recognise for quite some time that nests located high above ground went mostly unnoticed by the salaried collectors. In addition, Seeley should be glad that he didn’t end up a martyr of science when he accidentally dropped a can of cyanide in an attempt to poison a wild bee colony during his PhD studies.

In a recent conversation with Tom Seeley, he suggested that students of honeybees should be able to read German, for many of the early and seminal papers on this topic were originally published in that language. In Honeybee Democracy we learn that, as a student, Seeley read Lindauer’s magnum opus of 1955, Schwarmbienen auf Wohnungssuche (House hunting swarm bees), in the original. Such a habit can only be put down to sheer dedication, given that the paper is 62 pages long and he had to decipher the work almost word by word since he did not speak German! This is the first instance in which your reviewer has been glad to have German as his first language.

Mission accomplished

Seeley writes in an engaging and entertaining style. He also manages to explain complicated facts in easily understandable prose without compromising on the scientific information, and his comparisons with human behaviour and democratic practices are telling. The more general reader won’t be deterred by footnotes and will be pleased to find the often used references at the end of the book.

The author aimed to bolster, “an appreciation of these little creatures”. Mission accomplished. It’s hard to not be fascinated by the, “little six-legged beauties”.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013

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