Jon Snow was looking for the queen. There had been a lot of bloodshed. I asked him about the day he’d discovered all the corpses. “That day was horrible,” he said. “There was sadness.”
This wasn’t Game of Thrones.
We were wearing bee suits, Snow and I, standing on the roof of Barnard Hall, home to Barnard College’s departments of English and dance. And 20,000 honeybees.
My Barnard colleague Jon Snow, professor in the biology department, was showing me his beehives, started anew after a traumatic failure of a colony in late winter.
My hope was to learn about the threats to bees. What I left with was an insight into the threats to democracy.
First, he used a smoker to pacify the bees, so that we wouldn’t get stung. Then he pulled out one of the racks in the hive, and there they were: 500 or 600 European honeybees, or Apis mellifera. I saw the worker bees, building the comb. I saw the drones, flatter and broader, and with much bigger eyes. And there, in all her glory, was the queen, getting ready to lay an egg.
“The way we refer to bees,” Snow said, “it’s like there’s a power structure, with the queen at the top. But that’s not the case. Bees make decisions as a group, sort of a collective consciousness.”
He pointed me toward a book titled Honeybee Democracy, by Tom Seeley. Seeley, something of a legend among apiarists, is part of the Department of Neurobiology and Behaviour at Cornell University, where he has studied what he calls “swarm intelligence” — the way groups can sometimes be smarter than any of their individual members (as opposed to what I guess you’d call “swarm stupidity,” which is what seems to be at the heart of American life right now, and of our lives on social media not least).
Honeybees aren’t like Targaryens or Lannisters; their primary concern is survival of their society, not the attainment of raw power. And while the queen plays a unique role, the workers manage to make group decisions about where to forage, by means of something called the waggle dance. Snow pointed out a waggle dancer, and I watched in wonder as the bee moved around in a figure-eight pattern. The direction the bee dances in, relative to the hive and to the angle of the sun, indicates the direction of food.
Dancing bees also make group decisions about the future of the colony. When a new queen is born, the old queen leaves her hive with 10,000 bees to form a daughter colony. For a few hours — or days — they remain homeless, gathered in a swarm. During this time the bees do an amazing thing: They hold a democratic debate on where to go next.
Finding out the truth
In the swarm phase, scouts head out in search of a new hive location, and they return to advertise the possibilities through their dance. Other bees go to check out these places, and if they concur, they will repeat the dance. Amazingly, in time the bees seem to come to a consensus on the best choice, not through blind repetition of another’s dance, but by heading out and finding out the truth for themselves.
Seeley suggests that, the waggle notwithstanding, the process resembles a New England town meeting, decisions getting made as a result of conversation and consensus.
Human beings are not insects. But the democracy of bees contains plenty of good lessons in civics. Among the most important takeaways: That facts about the environment matter; that the colony most likely to survive is one in which all voices are listened to; and that the worst kind of leader is a vain, narcissistic being who values his or her own royalty above that of the community.
Even in the best of scenarios, the lives of bees are fragile, and now more than ever, with their habitat under constant threat. Four of Snow’s hives died this winter because of wild variation in the climate. But with these new colonies, his work continues — work that investigates how honeybees respond to environmental stress at a cellular level.
As we left the roof of Barnard Hall, trailing the smell of wax and smoke, it was hard not to be impressed by the urgency of his research, science which may well help determine whether human life on Earth will endure.
I met Snow on a beautiful spring day: Trees in bloom, bees hovering over the newly opened flowers. It was a good day to consider what kind of colony we reside in — an intelligent swarm? Or the other kind?
It is, at long last, spring. But winter is coming.
— New York Times News Service
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.