Author Q&A

Q: You seem to make a smooth transition between natural science and social science in the book. Was this your intention? In what ways do you feel the two fields relate?

I think there’s an artificial distinction between natural science and social science because social sciences study humans, but humans are animals. It starts with the commonality that humans form groups and bees form groups. There are a lot of people that have pointed out that groups make poor decisions, but if you look at it, you realize that it’s usually because the group is poor. With the right organization, human groups can make really good decisions. With bees, their group decisionmaking is life or death. These are really important decisions, and they’ve been doing it for millions of years, so they’ve had a lot of time to work out the kinks.

Q: Later in the book you talk about building a consensus. How do you think that Congress compares to the work of honeybees when it comes to this issue?

Congress could do it if they used some of the same organizational skills that the honeybees use. We’re all one country. Congress has gotten so polarized that they lose sight of the fact that we all function together in one economy. It is one nation, and that nation goes up or down together. That’s something where I think we could use some improvement. Bees show us that if a human group has a commonality of interests like bees do, then we would be better at using the organizational tools that the bees use. Something that would be really good is the fact that we do have a cheerleader in our government, namely the president. I think what presidents could do more often is remind members of Congress that we really are all in this boat together.

Q: What do you think honeybees would think of the Senate filibuster as a means of swaying the majority and building consensus?

It looks like it’s maladaptive in terms of helping a group make good decisions. Bees have nothing like that. That suggests that if the filibuster had ever arisen, over revolutionary time it would not have been favored and that’s why we don’t see it today. 

Q: What is the balance and struggle for power like in a beehive? Is it in any way similar to the struggle for the majority that exists in our legislative system?

There are a lot of parallels. With the bees, choosing a home is a lot like a political election. You’ve got different candidates and you have supporters for each of the different candidates and you’ve got uncommitted voters. The supporters for each site are strongly advertising their candidate. What the bees do is very much the way we sort out candidates in our primary elections. And isn’t it interesting that in the primaries, two candidates can be having a real strong, vigorous debate and once it’s over, everybody assembles behind that one individual? That’s how it works with the bees as well. 

Q: How many times have you gotten stung in all your years of research?

I’ve lost count, but it would probably be in the hundreds.