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After reading Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas D. Seeley

Every year, honey bee colonies move house. It’s called swarming. It’s how the colony, as a superorganism, reproduces. [Beekeepers do what they can to control and manage swarming – but that’s another story.]

I’ve recently been reading Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas D. Seeley. What he demonstrates, through decades of scientific research about honey bees and their collective-decision-making, is astonishing.

When the time comes to look for a new nest site, a few hundred scout bees – there are tens of thousands of bees in a colony – stop searching for nectar-rich flowers and begin house-hunting. When a scout bee finds a site she believes would be a good home, she returns to the colony and spreads the message in the same way she gives news updates about flowers: she dances. With these ‘waggle’ dances, as they are known, in the total darkness of the hive, she communicates the direction, distance, and quality of a place to forage – except that, now, she is not dancing about forage, but about nest sites. In the days and hours before a swarm takes flight, it will hear from the scouts about a dozen or more possible sites. And a little while later, the swarm will take off and be led by the scouts to the one option that stood out above the others. It will be a unanimous decision.

For millions of years, honey bees have, through natural selection, refined this decision-making process. It works so harmoniously that it may have lessons for… well… other collective-decision-making groups. Amazingly, they do all this without a leader. No-one is steering them in a particular direction.

How do they manage this feat? First, the scouts identify the options. They are a big and diverse group, and they are able to come up with a wide variety of nesting sites. Second, they immediately share the news about every possible home. As soon as a scout finds a new site, she returns to the hive and dances to indicate the direction, the distance, and the level of her enthusiasm for the site. Third, when all opinions are aired, the scouts make hundreds of trips to see for themselves the quality of the sites that are up for discussion. There is no suppression of dissenting views, no pressure to conform. And, ultimately, as sites of lesser quality lose support and sites of better quality gain support, unanimous agreement is reached.

Think of the scouts as our Parliament and the colony as our nation.

What if, at the start of discussions in Parliament just after the Referendum, and before negotiations with the EU began, following the pattern of honey bee democracy, Parliament set itself the task of exploring all the options for the UK’s Brexit position, with a view to being able to say clearly to the EU what the UK position was? What if, following the pattern of honey bee democracy, available options were all discussed openly, without suppression of dissenting views, or pressure to conform? What if, following the pattern of honey bee democracy, free votes and secret ballots were used to understand what the individual MPs in Parliament really felt? What if, following the pattern of honey bee democracy, leadership was only ever about shaping the process, not the product of the group’s discussions? What if these things had really happened, would Parliament be where it is today?

I know, I know, humans are infinitely more complex than insects; the comparison is ludicrous at best, and irrelevant at least. But honey bees have been managing collective-decision-making successfully for 30 million years. Can we learn from them?

Archie McLellan