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.

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.

The slightly more palatable model for our political system may be what happens when the population of the colony is much larger. In those cases, a second swarm can fly away from the original location. That second swarm also needs a queen. In this case, when the first potential queen emerges, workers prevent her from killing the other potential queens. Instead, they coax those additional queens out of their cells, one at a time. When a second queen emerges, she faces off against the first in what is called in D.C. a debate. Honeybee biologists call it a duel. It is a fight in which the winner of the duel faces subsequent duels, with the ultimate winner taking over the hive. (Each loser is unceremoniously killed and dropped out of the nest with the garbage.)

These duels are the hive dramas most parallel to our own elections. The question is how (or even if) the workers influence which queen wins the duel. Tarpy recently studied what happens when dueling queens are allowed to fight in isolation—without any influence of the workers, that buzzing electorate. He removed queens from their larval cells at different stages so that some were more mature than others and hence would be able to produce more eggs later on. He staged 66 elections, 27 of which were between two high-quality, high-egg-potential candidates; 16 were between one high-quality and one low-quality queen; and 23 were between two low-quality queens. What happened? The bigger queen—which wasn’t necessarily the more mature one—almost always won, even when she was of less value to the hive than her rival. In other words, the winner of the fight was not the individual who would most benefit the masses, just the toughest one. But the results are different when the workers are allowed into the mix. Inside the hive, the winner tends to be no bigger than the loser. Somehow the workers are influencing the dynamics of the election, preventing it from being a simple cage match in which the bigger, badder fighter wins.

Honeybee elections may be the elections in nature most like our own. The citizens of the hive play some role, but a modest one. The workers prevent the queen from killing the other queens before they even have a chance. The workers also, somehow, keep the result of the election from being purely and brutally the outcome from one-on-one war.

Other models of democratic elections seem to be rare. Fire ant queens are winnowed among contenders through simple and brutal battles to the death, battles that can last hours. Wolves beat, pummel, and bite their way to the top of the pack hierarchy. Among nonhuman animals, leaders seem to be most likely to win through dominance or minor warfare. As my colleague Ed Vargo has shown, termites sometimes rely on extreme nepotism. In one of the most common termite species in North America, when queens die, they are replaced by their exact clones.

The rarity of democratic elections in other societies may be an issue of getting good information. When bees make democratic decisions about where to move their nest, they do it on the basis of the direct experience of many different bees. Democracy, as the political scientist Christian List puts it, “is good at pooling information from different individuals.” But it doesn’t make sense to pool information unless you have it. Inside the nests of most societies, conditions are tight and few individuals actually touch and assess the candidates. Only the proximate know enough to vote.

What does all of this tell us about what we should do? If we buy the idea that democracy works in animals only when individual citizens provide good information about the subject of the decision, it may mean our democracy is only as good as our journalists, those forager bees. But it also means that when it comes to electing a leader democratically, we as a species are on our own, trying for something that, while great and beautiful, has little precedent in nature. If the bees were able to read, this is where we might urge them to look to us. Go to the humans thou bee, and learn their ways, learn to struggle toward transparency, truth, and participation.