VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Mares: Bee Democracy

Normally, I work in the bee yards to escape thinking about the direction of American politics and the state of the world. But this year is different.

In many countries, democracy is under siege. Populist, even fascist, governments are on the march. Nationalism is rampant. Other countries threaten to break apart entirely. And dictatorship is always in vogue.

So it is with the bees, since they are biologically imperiled by parasites, climate change and pesticides. Thirty to forty % of Vermont's colonies died this past year, and mine didn’t escape this scourge.

For 45 years I've loved my bees. They’re marvelous creatures, neither domestic nor wild, working together in solidarity to produce delectable honey, propolis, wax and pollen. Emily Dickinson called them "buccaneers of buzz.” They live only six weeks in the summer, marching through their graduated tasks in a life that’s short, but neither "nasty" nor "brutish" – to borrow from Thomas Hobbes.

Since at least Aristotle's time, 2500 years ago, philosophers and poets have celebrated their single-minded purpose and near-magical products. In the 17th and 18th century, three bees adorned the Pope's miter. In 1804 Napoleon had scores of golden bees sewn into his imperial coronation robes.

In her book, The Hive, an English writer whose honest-to-goodness name is Bee Wilson – with two e’s - writes about how bees have been "one of the most enduring socio-political utopias in human history. Writers in different ages have made bees symbols and exemplars for almost every form of political structure there is, from monarchical, aristocratic, and constitutional, to anarchist, imperial, communitarian, and communist - but not democratic.

It was assumed that there was no shared decision-making, no ideas debated, no votes taken - until Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley came along to study how swarming bees decide on a new location for home.

In his book Honeybee Democracy Seeley observed that bees send out several hundred scouts in all directions to look for an attractive tree cavity. As he tracked them for from six to thirty-six hours scoping out different sites, he noted that early choices often lost out to later selections.

Gradually, like citizens at a town meeting, the bee scouts coalesce around a particular site at which their evaluations go from possible, to preferable and finally to unanimity that this is the place. And soon after, the scouts lead the remainder of the swarm, some twenty-thousand bees, to their new home.