Thomas Seeley’s fascinating Honeybee Democracy has received press in some unusual circles for a book about insect behavior. Everyone from homemade mead-makers to The New Republic has weighed in with glowing reviews on this study of honeybee swarms.
The reason for this broad appeal is simple: Seeley does an excellent job describing the how and why of honeybee group decision-making, and weaves a fascinating narrative of science along the way. Honeybee enthusiasts, sociologists, politicians and computer scientists will all find much to love, as will anyone who just enjoys a good tale of discovery.
What this isn’t is a book to make you a better beekeeper – except possibly if you are aiming to capture swarms. But it is a wonderful look at the complexity of honeybee life and behavior, half corporate organism and half social colony.
Perhaps the catchy title has something to do with the book’s popularity – with an election year ramping up and all – but the book barely ventures into democracy as we two-leggers think of it. You’ll have to look elsewhere for justification to vote for Ron Paul, abolish the Electoral College, implement single payer healthcare or whatnot. This is a book about bees – and about how bees make decisions – with a little bit about what lessons humans might learn from bee decision-making.
Most of the book takes the form of a narrative – Seeley’s progressively more subtle investigations into swarm behavior. These explorations begin crudely, almost 40 years ago, by gassing colonies and cutting down bee trees, something Seeley recounts with a blend of nostalgic enthusiasm and apologetic humility. But as time passes every exploration becomes more fascinating: how do scout bees evaluate the suitability of a potential nesting site…how do they communicate this opinion to the hive…how does the swarm at large come to agree on a destination…how does the swarm know when it is time to go…how does the swarm manage to find the nesting site?
The answers are fascinating. Honeybees debate.
The book reveals the multifaceted nature of bee communication, which goes far beyond the honey dance. It also reveals the dedication of Seeley and his fellow researchers to stare at swarms, paint colored dots on bees, risk assault by reclusive fishermen, and devise ever more ingenious tests for their teeny tiny research subjects.
The book is most successful at showcasing science in action. Seely’s efforts are an investigative process. He asks questions, finds partial answers, and refines his investigations to always probe more subtle layers of bee behavior.
There is a lot for the average gardener (or beekeeper) to learn from this process. It isn’t lab-coat-and-microscope stuff. The photos in the book are of sunburned graduate students staring at nesting sites, counting bees, logging behaviors. The equipment isn’t CSI high-tech, it’s plywood boxes, video cameras, and clipboards.
The research is half-experimental and half-observational, the sort of thing that all kids do when they flip a beetle upside down and watch to see how it rights itself. It’s what any of us can do if we have a question and half-an-idea for how that question might be answered. It is fun to try and answer those questions: which kale grows best? How does temperature affect germination? What companion plantings keep the aphids away? Honeybee Democracy shows inquisitive, process-based fun at a professional level.
As the tales of research and behavior wind up, the final chapters work to bring things together. Seeley analyzes swarms and colonies as cognitive entities – basically as distributed brains. When this stuff comes up it helps to think of the living bee unit as the hive, made up of individual bees the same way our human body is made up of cells. The science leans a bit more towards traditional biology and neuroscience here, and it gets a little more technical than the rest of the volume.
And at the very end, the implied connection to politics emerges as Seeley looks at the hive in relation to human societies, ultimately distilling the observations of his honeybee studies into lessons for human decision makers. A careful scientist, he is cautious about leaping from descriptive to the prescriptive, and does so only tentatively.
Seeley’s examples of honeybee-like decision-making – Vermont town meetings and his own academic faculty department – are, like beehives, probably too homogenous to offer exact solutions for more diverse and chaotic human affairs. Nonetheless, learning how a complex non-human society comes to consensus is riveting.
Honeybee Democracy is the most appreciative look at bees and one of the most compelling narratives of science in action that I’ve ever read. Strongly recommended.
Want to learn how to debate like a bee? To be entered to win a copy of Honeybee Democracy, leave a comment telling us: what is a non “how to” book that’s helped make you a better gardener, cook, homemaker or urban homesteader, and what did you learn from it?
Contest open until July 23rd, 8 pm PDT. US-readers only, please, due to shipping. This contest is sponsored by Homebrew Husband, who owns a hat with a bee on it and loves books as much I do.
Contest now closed. Congrats to our winner, Rachel. Rachel, check your email for directions on how to claim your book. Thanks to everyone who entered!