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Book Review: Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley

Review by Susan Milius

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Some smart aleck is going to pick up Honeybee Democracy, an account of decision making among bees, and snicker that the book should be titled Honeybee Monarchy. After all, everybody knows that a beehive has a queen.

Yes there’s a queen, but Seeley, a Cornell entomologist, writes that one of the biggest misconceptions about how bee colonies work is that queens direct colony doings. Actually she’s not a Royal Decider, as he puts it, but a Royal Ovipositer, laying 1,500 eggs or so on a summer day while leaving the rest of colony affairs to the group. 

Seeley describes a colony as a smoothly functioning group that makes life-or-death decisions rather democratically. Bees’ methods work so well, he says, that evolution has favored some of the same features elsewhere, as in behavior among human brain cells.

To illustrate bee decision making, Seeley details how swarms choose a new home. Seeley presents his material with charm, and the bees’ system of house-hunting becomes surprising and awe-inspiring. The bees swarm out of their old home before looking for a new one. As thousands of now-homeless honeybees dangle in a beardlike mass from a branch, scouts scour the countryside. They report back, through elaborate dances, and debate possible locations.

Evolution has honed bees to balance the need for accuracy and individual points of view from scouts against the need for speed. The process so impressed Seeley, he says, that when he became chair of his department, he instituted measures to make faculty meetings a bit more beelike.

Princeton Univ. Press, 2010, 273 p., $29.95

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