My Goodreads Rating: 2 of 5 stars
A good science writer must combine the dry precision of a mathematician with the relaxed storytelling of grandpa. Error too much on the side of the mathematician and you produce an unmotivated collection of facts that is about as fun to read as a 1960s computer punch card. Error too much on the side of grandpa and you leave your reader stealthily checking his watch and wandering when you will return from yet another sidetrack on the merits of the seat cushion textiles used in pre-1973 Chevys and get back to your main point.
In his Wisdom of the Hive, Seeley struck this balance perfectly, balancing a brilliant overview of all that is known on the foraging behaviors and allocation of workers in honeybee colonies with informative discussions on the methods and motivations behind the seminal experiments.
In “Honeybee Democracy” however, Seeley errors a bit too much on the side of grandpa. The first eight chapters of this book are bloated with anthropomorphic speculation on the inner lives of bees, gushing commentary on the brilliance and diligence of Seeley’s colleagues, and various anecdotes unrelated to his experiments. The admittedly interesting results and experiments on how honeybees select their new hive locations could easily have been summarized in a magazine article but instead are spread thinly over 200 pages of stealthy watch-checking and anxious squirming.
That said, the last two sections shine. Chapter 9 covers a lucid analogy between honeybee home selection and the neuroscience of primate decision-making. The underlying message is clear: replace bees with neurons and the mathematical principles behind the two systems are tantalizingly similar. Though I mentioned it in my review on Wisdom of the Hive, I echo: neuroscientists and entomologists would do wise to start throwing parties together. The computational problems faced by social insects and neural networks are often very similar and if Nature is as clever as we credit her for, then she has likely recycled her best evolutionary solutions.
Chapter 10 concludes the book with an insightful overview of lessons on effective group decision-making that Seeley has borrowed from his bee friends. While I usually find these extrapolations to human behavior cringeworthy (for the last time Deepak Chopra, special relativity and quantum mechanics do not imply that all viewpoints are equally valid and all of the Earth’s creatures are connected by a magical consciousness field), Seeley’s suggestions are well-motivated by his studies of bees and genuinely helpful for human groups. He advises that groups  be composed of individuals with mutual respect and shared interests (to unify goals and enable discussion),  led by a leader who acts as mediator rather than driver of discussion (to avoid Bush administration-like kowtowing),  initially seek diverse proposals independently generated by group members (to ensure that all potentially useful ideas are laid on the table),  aggregate group knowledge through debate (to enable each group member to make an informed and ideally independent decision), and  to anonymously survey the group opinion often (to effectively identify contentious decisions and accelerate convergence once a clear winning proposal begins to emerge). I found the most interesting feature of honeybee home selection to be that bees “advertising” a new home site do not directly recruit the support of their fellow bees; instead they recruit their independent assessment. That is, recruited bees play the role of skeptic, examine the candidate home site for themselves, and perform an assessment that is independent of the initial enthusiasm conveyed by the original advertising bee. Seeley is (rightfully) emphatic in his discussion of lessons - that a certain level of independence among the members of a group is essential to effective decision-making.
Seeley also includes a very brief but fascinating review on the concept of “signal ritualization” in the context of bee behavior (I first encountered this concept in the work of theoretical biologists Maturana and Varela). The idea is that evolution may sometimes seize upon an incidental action and modify it to produce an intentional signal over time. The example Seeley offers is the “buzz-run signal.” In order to prepare for flight, a bee must rub its wings together. Thus, wing buzzing is a natural indicator of impending bee flight. Yet bees have even learned to buzz their wings without flying in order to encourage other bees to prepare for a group takeoff. In other words, buzzing has been “ritualized” from an incidental predictor of flight in the buzzing bee to a signal encouraging flight in nearby bees.
Two questions I have for any entomologists that happen to stumble across this review. One, in light of Seeley’s suggestion that honeybee colonies have responses resembling metabolism and immune responses, I am curious whether colonies also exhibit behaviors analogous to aging and learning? Two, Seeley mentions that the number of dance circuits in a waggle run reflects the quality of the advertised home site, but have any studies probed whether rate and duration of waggle runs serve as separate channels of information?
In conclusion, if you are considering reading this book, I suggest replacing the first eight chapters with Wisdom of the Hive and then reading the last two chapters of “Honeybee Democracy” for their fascinating connections to neuroscience and human group decision-making.