“A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole. Indeed, one can accurately think of a honeybee colony as a single living entity, weighing as much as 5 kilograms (10 pounds) and performing all of the basic physiological processes that support life: ingesting and digesting food, maintaining nutritional balance, circulating resources, exchanging respiratory gases, regulating water content, controlling body temperature, sensing the environment, deciding how to behave, and achieving locomotion.”
There is an idea gaining credibility that just as hives behave as individuals made up of the independently moving “cells”, that primate brains are almost like hives unto themselves…vast collectives of caste system individuals handling tasks that cumulatively produce the neurological reality experienced by the individual. This can’t be described as a final proven fact, but the model holds up, right down to the notion of specific cells that are needed being produced. algorithmically to changing needs. This extends to decision-making, which is the main subject of Honeybee Democracy. The bees exercise a collective intelligence that mimics not just small-group decision-making but the cognitive deliberations of our own brains:
“We will see that the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective.”
Like many biologists, Seeley sees a bee colony as not just a collection of individuals but as a sort of super-organism. He continues:
“Over the last two decades, while other sociobiologists and I have been analyzing the behavioral mechanisms of decision making by insect societies, neurobiologists have been investigating the neuronal basis of decision making by primate brains. It turns out there are intriguing similarities in the pictures that have emerged from these two independent lines of study. For example, the studies of individual neuron activity associated with the eye-movement decisions in monkey brains and the studies of individual bee activity associated with nest-site decisions in honeybee swarms have both found that the decision-making process is essentially a competition between alternatives to accumulate support (e.g., neuron firings and bee visits), and the alternative that is chosen is the one whose accumulation of support first surpasses a critical threshold. Consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them.”
The superorganism idea goes back to Herbert Spencer in the 19th century, and while it can get mushy around the edges, it’s firm at the core. E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler elaborated it in their 2008 “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies”, which I’ve not read, but which looks nice and meaty. Despite the superorganism meme, Seeley doesn’t see individuals as automatons slaving away for the hive. Rather, “each one [is] an alert individual making tours of inspection looking for things to do and acting on her own to serve the community.”
In this short video Seeley describes the process bees go through in choosing a new location for the hive when they need to move. It’s amazing.