June 28, 2011

A very Dryden Honeybee Democracy

I'd heard about Tom Seeley's Honeybee Democracy from a wildly diverse array of places - the radio, friends, work, beekeeping lists, catalogs, and probably more. I'd been planning to buy it, but Angelika surprised me with it last week, borrowing it from the Tompkins County Public Library.

The focus of the story is, of course, honeybees, those amazing creatures that look like space aliens, function as a group, and give us delicious honey. The author, however, tells many more stories, of human researchers and explorers. Since he grew up in Ellis Hollow and still works in the area, there are lots of moments like this:

Bee trees... I located through a want ad I placed in the local newspaper, the Ithaca Journal. The ad read BEE TREES wanted, Will pay $15 or 15 lb of honey... (47)

I took each nest box to a place I knew that I'd enjoy in my home "territory" of Ellis Hollow, and nailed it about 5 meters (15 feet) off the ground onto the side of a large tree. I still remember vividly the thrill I felt a few weeks later, in late June, when I checked the nest box that I'd mounted on a dead elm tree along Cascadilla Creek and saw dozens of leather-colored honeybees bustling in and out of its entrance. (53)

To build the many nest boxes needed for this study, I spent most of my Christmas break in 1975 sawing and hammering and painting in the woodshop at Dyce Lab [on Freese Road]. (54)

Dyce Lab workshop, 2011
Dyce Lab workshop, 2011.

The book goes many other places - Germany for the early experiments on bee swarms, Appledore Island off the coast of Maine to test bees in an isolated environment, and Bradford, Vermont, for a classic New England Town Meeting.

Seeley's story-telling goes beyond the usual dry reporting of hypotheses and experimental results to bring in the people and how those results came about. One thing I especially like about that story-telling is that it shows how in-the-moment decisions, changes to experiments, and simple close observation can lead investigations down new pathways.

Dryden itself doesn't function particularly like a beehive, though given that Seeley is studying mass departures through swarming in this book, that may not be a bad thing.

I strongly recommend the book, even if you don't like bees, primarily for its very different look at decision-making processes. I was a little less excited by the material comparing swarm decision making to primate nervous systems, but then I usually spend more of my time with people than with clusters of neurons. It definitely opens some new horizons in thinking about how groups work, and has me reconsidering some basic questions about decision-making on many scales.

[Disclosure: I know Tom Seeley's wife Robin, and she was actually a key person in getting me involved with the Dryden Democratic Party. It's been a few years since we've spoken, however!]

Posted by simon at June 28, 2011 5:23 PM in ,
Note on photos