England & Wales

What can councils learn from bees?


Nature, it turns out, can tell us quite a lot about how we queue, communicate and decide things. In his book Smart Swarm, Peter Miller explains how bees decide on the location of their new nest site. The location of a new nest is not a trivial choice, its life or death. The bees get one go and if they choose badly they will die of cold, starvation or predation. In controlled experiments the bees always get it right.

When a colony swarms it leaves its old nest site, travels a bit and then has a rest. The scouts fly off and search out new sites. When the scouts return they perform a waggle dance to explain where the new site is. Other scouts go to the site to see for themselves and eventually the colony decides. There are some interesting features of this decision making. The queen is not involved, in fact most of the swarm is dozing and there is no strategic overview, no one bee visits all the available sites.

In fact, the colony becomes a market place for ideas. A returning scout will indicate how good a nest is by the length and enthusiasm she puts into her waggle dance. So in a short period of time four or five scouts all vigorously advocating one site convinces the rest that the best site has been found and the colony heads off.

At one level this process could be seen as a clear endorsement of specialist and experts. However, the process is instinctive rather than professional, there has been no comparative research programme, risk assessment or cost/benefit analysis. The bees could also be understood as supporting the traditional role of councillor as representative of a community’s needs and the primary decision maker. But the bees don’t bother with ‘representativeness’, scouts are a minority group.

Maybe the bees are telling something about decision making in the Big Society. The colony ‘trusts’ the scouts to decide on the best location. The scouts provide an objective assessment which they then advocate to other scouts and expect their opinions  to be tested. Critical mass for a decision is actually quite small. This looks to me like a few community activists spotting an opportunity in their area, gaining local support and getting on with it. No recourse to the Council, no funding bid, no need for a referendum, the Big Society in action.

Miller cites the example of the US state of Vermont where the settlement’s budget is set by the people in a town hall meeting. The process usually follows a pattern. Firstly, the council proposes its budget then it’s debated and counter proposals are put forward which are voted on. If it works well the town will settle on a budget they can all live with. Only a minority of the town will attend and the debate has to follow the Roberts Rules of Order. Miller suggest that three main lessons can be learned from the bees: seek a diversity of knowledge; encourage friendly competition of ideas and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices.

One of the main tensions identified in research the LGiU has been doing on the Big Society is that while councils are comfortable with civil society organisations contributing to delivery they are less comfortable with them being involved in decision making. Perhaps the bees can help.