Humans Aren’t the Only Animals That Hold Elections

The state of the universe.
Nov. 2 2012 3:45 PM

How Other Animals Choose Their Leaders

You think our elections are tough? Tell it to the wolves.

Thomas Seeley's colored and numbered bees.
Tom Seeley suggests we turn to the bees to see how they make decisions

Photograph courtesy Princeton Press.

It is hard to escape the sensation that our electoral process is broken. Too much money. Too much bullshit. Perhaps we should turn to nature for insight, remedy, or just salve. The Book of Proverbs implored believers to go to the ant and consider her ways when it came to wisdom and industriousness. Can we also turn to the ant for lessons on democracy?  

The idea that ants, honeybees, or other social animals might do a thing or two better than we do is ancient. The Bible, Torah, and Quran all invoke insect societies. In the Amazon, Kayapo children were once advised to follow the brave, social ways of the ant (and to eschew the more vulgar ways of the termite).

Most recently, Cornell University entomologist Tom Seeley has written a lovely and compelling book titled Honeybee Democracy which suggests we turn to the bees to see how they make decisions. Thanks to the work of Seeley and his collaborators, it is now clear that honeybee hives really are democratic. When it’s time to look for a new nest, options are weighted by the evaluations of many different bees about a site’s qualities—its size, its humidity, the density of surrounding flowers. Individual bees vote with dances, and when the number of dances in favor of some particular site is high enough, the masses are swayed. Together, citizen bees choose, if not perfection, the best possible option.

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In ants, choices about how to nest or feed also seem democratic, though a few experts influence the process. Some ants just know more than others.

Forms of democracy also exist in flocks of birds (who must decide when to fly) and troops of monkeys (who decide when to move). In each of these situations, consensus is necessary, and consensus is reached by some form of voting. Democratic decision-making is common in nature; humans did not invent democracy. But there is more to the story.

One of my racquetball buddies, Dave Tarpy (he leads the series, if you are wondering, though I won the last game), studies honeybees decisions. Tarpy was a postdoctoral researcher with Tom Seeley and so has learned Seeley’s democracy-documenting ways, but Tarpy is more interested in queens than Seeley is. How do these solitary leaders become who they are? What allows some queens to succeed over others when there is a power vacuum in the hive?

One aspect of the honeybee royal lifestyle Tarpy studies is mating behavior. He is fascinated by promiscuity, at least in honeybees. Honeybee queens mate multiple times and store sperm in a special internal appendage. They can then allocate the sperm to produce their offspring. Tarpy has shown that more promiscuous queens produce colonies that are more genetically diverse and are less at risk of disease. Given plenty of sperm to choose from, the odds are that at least one father passed on genes resistant to whatever pathogen the colony encounters. In a world in which honeybee colonies appear to be facing their version of the great plague—colony collapse disorder—promiscuity is more important than ever.  

Tarpy also studies how queens are elected. A queen is not a president (the president is not in charge of literally birthing the next generation, for example), yet honeybees do choose their leader.

When honeybees swarm—and head to their new, democratically selected nest sites—their old mother queen goes with them. But not all of the hive members depart. Some workers remain, as do larval bees that have been fed the royal jelly necessary to turn them into queens. (Genetically, queens and workers are identical.) A replacement queen must be chosen from among these ladies in waiting if the society of the remaining daughters is to live on. Two things can happen: If just a small hive is left, the first potential queen to emerge from her royal cell kills all of the other potential queens waiting to emerge. She then takes over. Obviously, this is not the model to which our political system should turn, though it certainly has historical precedent.