A Review of Thomas Seeley’s New Book, Honeybee Democracy
What is the human mind and how does it work? A lot of work has gone into attempts to answer this big question. Most approaches are reductionist in nature – begin with the brain and identify increasingly detailed cognitive functions and structures or begin with neurons and assemble larger structures. So we have top-down approaches like PET and fMRI scans of the brain which attempt to correlate localized increases in brain metabolism with different cognitive processes. This is a little like understanding Martians by studying the canals of Mars through a telescope. Connectionists take a bottom-up approach by simulating neural networks on computers and then train them to recognize simple patterns. So far, neural nets have failed to evolve much beyond that.
There is an alternative to reductionism: holism or emergentism. Marvin Minsky’s book, Society of Mind, attempted to outline answers to our big question. In an early draft of the book in 1976, he says, “The mind is a community of ‘agents.’ Each has limited powers and can communicate only with certain others. The powers of mind emerge from their interactions for none of the Agents, by itself, has significant intelligence.” One way to study the emergence of intelligence in humans is to identify a simpler example of emergent intelligence in nature and study it. That, dear reader, is what brings us to honey bees. But first, a little background for those unfamiliar with this fascinating animal.
You may think of a colony of 30,000 to 60,000 honey bees as a superorganism. Like mammals, a honey bee colony has organs with the following functions:
- visual and chemical sensing of the environment (within 5 kilometers or 30 square miles)
- gathering of water, protein (pollen), and carbohydrates (nectar)
- storing surplus energy for overwintering (honey instead of fat in mammals)
- ‘circulatory’ and ‘digestive’ systems which internally transports food , removes waste, and transforms pollen and nectar into wax, bee bread, honey and royal jelly. Like mammalian milk, royal jelly is secreted from a bee gland and fed to all baby bees or larvae.
- an immune system which detects foreign bodies and attacks them (called ‘hygienic behavior‘ by beekeepers)
- internal communication (smell/pheromones, vibrations/dancing, and acoustics/piping)
- homeostatis (fanning bees for cooling and humidity control and heater bees in the winter)
- reproduction (swarming)
- cell replacement (brood rearing)
These cells and organs cannot live apart from the larger organism in which they serve. Unlike the cells of mammalian organs which perform a singular function in a clearly defined location (e.g.,liver cells or lung cells), individual bees are cells that are typically alive for only 6 weeks and which will change their role and location within the colony multiple times during their short lifetime.
The honey bee colony or superorganism makes highly intelligent decisions. It reproduces in the Spring by calving off one queen and roughly 10,000 or 3 pounds of bees. This newborn swarm typically forms a beard-like mass on a branch within 100 yards of its parent colony. Immediately, several hundred scout bees will begin to scour 30 square miles of the surrounding area for a new home. The requirements for this new home are specific and important for the new swarm’s survival. If the swarm’s new home is too small, it will lack sufficient room to store honey and the colony will starve or freeze over the winter. If the space is too large or damp or drafty, the bees are more likely to freeze during the winter or become diseased. If the hole is too large, they will be unable to defend their home from other robbing bees or predators like bears or skunks. If they do not find cover before a downpour, the entire swarm can perish. The colony’s survival depends on an optimized decision being made quickly. That decision is made in an entirely decentralized and transparent way and that process is described in detail in Honeybee Democracy (2010, Princeton University Press), a new book by Cornell biology professor Thomas Seeley. Seeley’s research shows how bees consistently make timely and optimal decisions with respect to choosing a new home. And once the decision has been made, older scout bees first rouse the swarm into flight readiness and then guides the entire swarm in one mass to its new home.
Seeley shows how individual bees, with brains the size of a seed of grass, form a community of agents. These agents communicate with each other and their interactions result in a significant display of intelligence. It is the clearest example of Minsky’s Society of Mind to be found in nature. Seeley is a biologist. He is not a cognitive scientist and the link between his work and Minsky’s is of my own making. His one chapter on the swarm as a cognitive entity is the weakest chapter in the book, however it does not diminish the value of this book or of the enormous body of honey bee research reported. This is a book that every cognitive scientist should read. Mind you, I am not against reductionism – Seeley’s research demonstrates an effective use of it – I am only against continuing to use reductionism in Artificial Intelligence when there has been so little visible progress for so many years.
Finally, allow me to make a few comments for the readers who are not cognitive scientists and who were looking for a more tradition book review of Honeybee Democracy. I enjoyed this book enormously. That doesn’t mean that you will. However, if you find anything mildly interesting in Beehacker.com, you will enjoy this book and learn many new wonders about the workings of the honey bee superorganism. The writing is approachable for non-academics without being over simplified. I also enjoyed Seeley’s earlier book, The Wisdom of the Hive (1995, Harvard University Press), in which he discovers how a colony allocates foraging bees across 30 square miles of ever changing flower patches so that food is gathered efficiently, in sufficient quantity, and with a correct nutritional mix.
Shameless plug: you can purchase either or both of these books from the Beehacker store. Just click on the ‘SHOP’ tab at the top of this page.