How democracy works in nature


Animals regularly make group decisions that directly affect their everyday lives. But without the convenience of machines or ballots, how do they vote?

Last week, citizens of the United States voted to select who they thought would best serve them as President of their country, as legislators for their states, and more. They filed into their polling places (many of them waiting for hours), and indicated their choices on a touch screen or by colouring in ovals on a response form. Each voter weighed up the multiple consequences of each option and, after careful consideration, reached a conclusion. Then, each individual’s personal decisions were counted, and out of the chaos a winner emerged.

Animals make collective decisions, too. While non-human species typically don’t vote to choose their leaders, they do vote for other more routine decisions, like where to live or where to forage. But they don’t have voting machines or ballots to determine the group’s consensus, so how do they do it?

Some do it through the wisdom of crowds. Near the end of spring or the beginning of summer, honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies grow too large for their hives, so the group splits in two. The mother queen and half of the worker bees leave the hive to seek a new location, while the daughter queen and the remaining workers remain in place. Minutes later, the departed group identifies a temporary resting place on a nearby tree branch, and from there it surveys the local real estate. Several hundred scouts fan out in all directions in search of a suitable location for a new hive. On their return, each scout communicates the location of the space they found by performing a waggle dance in front of their hive mates.

Over the course of several days, the scouts may spend as much as sixteen hours dancing, each advocating for a possible location. As the days pass, consensus begins to emerge. It isn’t entirely clear what makes scouts stop campaigning for less popular sites; they don’t get voted out as if they were participating in some insect version of Dancing with the Stars. Some simply stop dancing, while others switch their choreography to endorse one of the more popular options.

Written By: Jason G. Goldman
continue to source article at


  1. Since the BBC won’t let those in the UK read this article, I can’t go beyond what the RDFRS provides, which means I am limited to the first example mechanism mentioned, which only “some” animals use. I know they do; I wanted to learn the ones other species use. Anyway, the only comment I have on what I could read is as thus:

     Each voter weighed up the multiple consequences of each option and, after careful consideration, reached a conclusion. 


  2. I think this is the paper on bees:
    though there’s a 1998 version, too, so they may have published something on the topic more recently.
    I’ll have a look for the macaque, elephant and buffalo papers later if I remember.

  3. This nest search pattern, seems to be a modification of the waggle-dance Honey Bees use for giving directions to nectar sources.

    Waggle dance –

     Waggle dance is a term used in beekeeping and ethology for a particular figure-eight dance of the honey bee. By performing this dance, successful foragers can share with other members of the colony, information about the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources, or to new housing locations.[1][2]
    A waggle dance with a very short waggle run used to be characterized as a distinct (round) recruitment dance (see below). Austrian ethologist and Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch was one of the first who translated the meaning of the waggle dance.

    Karl Ritter von Frisch ForMemRS[1] (20 November 1886 – 12 June 1982) was an Austrian ethologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, along with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.     –

  4. “Animals make collective decisions, too.”

    Not so sure if it is a decision or a win/loss situation. If we look at the dance as a rock, paper and scissor game, then there could be extremely simple (simple for bees) hierarchy of dance steps that automatically pick the winner. We don’t need to decide as a group that scissors beat paper, it is predetermined. The location dance that contains the most winning dance steps, within the time limit, gets the hive. There is no decision, the winner is self evident based on the predetermined criteria.

    What might a dance require to win? Who knows? Distance from previous hive, water source, cover, approach to the sun, size, food sources, elevation, predators? I expect they know these moves the same way they know how to stand on their legs and fly with their wings.

  5. It’s an algorithm, like natural selection. It doesn’t scale linearly, it seems to me.

  6. An article from a while back reported that air pollution interfered 
    with a bee’s ability to accurately  pinpoint a flower.

    Add to that CCD – poor bees.  Their numbers are dwindling, and it breaks my heart.

  7. The miserable BBC needs all the friends in Britain it can get at the moment, and to deny people in Britain – the licence payers –  access to a website that everybody else can see is not the way to get them.

  8. Never heard of BBC Future[International] before.
    ‘Continue to source article at‘, impossible as i live in England.
    I wonder why the BBC are cutting us out? 

    I love bees.Busy community and hard working.Fascinating to watch.
    Thank you for providing the links below,i want to see their waggle dance now!


  9. What could possibly be the proximate mechanism that switches the bees with less acceptable sites to dance the better sites to consensus?

    Perhaps it is a form of ” Dancing With The Stars ” and the winners are not only dancing with more conviction and skill but are esthetically pleasing in their dance; at least to other scout bees.

  10. Not allowing those in the UK to access certain articles/pages seems like a rather bizarre and counterintuitive decision on the part of the BBC’s website developers, etc., but maybe I’m missing something. They explain their rationale here, but the explanation is a bit confusing and convoluted. Particularly relevant to this situation is the section titled “I am in the UK – where can I find the international news?”.

  11. A bunch of scientist or engineers get together with different thoughts. They eventually arrive at one conclusion, but not by consensus. To an alien it may appear a democratic process, but it is not.

    Things are different and are worth discovering. Anthropomorphization is a fool’s lens.

  12. Anthropomorphization is a fool’s lens

    That’s a gorgeous sentence.   While I find Anthropomorphism to be irritating when it is abused, for instance, in badly scripted nature documentaries, I still enjoy it when I can.  I use it as a counter to the religious positions that humans are special (as only humans have souls, free will, iPads,  condoms, Starbucks, whatever), which I find offensive.

    Instead,  building on how closely our species is related, genetically, with all other life on earth, I like to view other species as just a different kind of folks, be they birds, badgers, beavers, bees, beetles, reptiles or republicans.   It helps my understanding, I think.

  13. OHooligan

      Anthropomorphization is a fool’s lens

    That’s a gorgeous sentence. 


    It also explains the perverse grasp of nature by those who learned about animals from Disney!

  14. Here´s the transcription:

    (Isn´t it risky to think of bees as “democratic” ?
    Anyway, I didn´t read it carefully yet, but I know there is some swiss young scientist who studies social models of insects and compares to human societies some how, as I watched a tv documentary about it long time ago, found it quite interesting, but didn´t take any note about his name. I have seached for any link about it, and couldn´t find).

    ”   Majority vote

    What is clear, however, is that the “hive mind” can make complex decisions only because the work is distributed across multiple individuals. Thomas Seeley and Susannah Buhrman, who have studied decision making in swarms*1 of honey bees write, “we have seen that there is no omniscient supervisory bee that compiles all the evaluations and selects the best site. Instead, it is the highly distributed process of friendly competition among the scout bees that identifies the best site. Hence the cognitive effort that each scout bee must make is evidently quite small relative to the information processing done by the entire swarm.”
    For honey bees, few individuals possess valuable information, which the rest of the group relies on. However, social species throughout the animal kingdom often have to make decisions without the aid of expert knowledge. Such is the case for Tonkean macaques (Macaca tonkeana), a group of fruit-loving monkeys that live in the forests of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Fruit trees are distributed randomly throughout the forest, with some areas containing more fruit than others. So Tonkean macaques must decide which direction they will move in search of food, and they make those choices by majority vote.
    When a particular Tonkean macaque wishes to move the group, he or she walks a few steps in the desired direction, pauses, and then turns his or her head back towards the rest of the group. This indicates that the group*2 should move to a new food patch. The other monkeys then decide whether to support the direction suggested, or whether to offer an alternative. If an alternate direction is proposed, each group member votes by joining with his or her favoured candidate. Like the leader himself, they walk a few steps, pause, and then turn their heads back to inspect the rest of the group.
    Once the majority of the group has voted, the remaining undecided voters simply side with the majority, walking along but not turning back to monitor the others. Those who opted for the losing recommendation turn*3 around and catch up the group.

    Herd mentality

    Writing in The American Naturalist, David Sloan Wilson quotes a buffalo expert named H. H. T. Prins, who wrote about an odd pattern in which the females get up while at rest, shuffle around, and lay back down. “[A]t first I interpreted this as “stretching the legs”, but one day I noticed that the cows adopt a particular stance after the shuffling and before lying down again,” he wrote. “They seem to gaze in one direction and keep their head higher than the normal resting position but lower than the alert… This standing up, gazing and lying down behaviour continues for about an hour, but the overall impression remains that of a herd totally at rest.” Wilson notes that Prins spent two years watching the buffalo before realising that this simple stretching behaviour was actually a means of registering one’s vote. Prins continues (as quoted by Wilson): “A few moments later, everywhere in the herd buffalo start trekking. The exciting thing is that they start trekking, at the beginning independently of each other, in the same direction.”

    Rather than simply shifting positions to become more comfortable, the female buffalo were actually casting their votes to indicate the direction they wished to travel. And the direction that the herd ultimately chose to move could be successfully predicted by the number of individuals who had initially been gazing that way. In other words, herd movements are guided by majority vote. If the votes were evenly divided between two directions, then the herd separates for the night, grazing at different locations, and reconvenes in the morning.

    Unlike the Tonkean macaques, only the adult female African buffalo are allowed to vote. But like the monkeys, all adult females vote regardless of their position within the dominance hierarchy. Also like the monkeys, any female may propose a travel route.

    One thing animals don’t appear to do, though, is explicitly select their leaders, as humans do. For elephants, it’s automatically the oldest female. Chimpanzees are led by the male who is able to retain hold over his position as most dominant. A female honey bee becomes queen based on what she eats in the first days of her life (though worker bees do seem to have some influence over who becomes queen, giving honey bees the most human-like election process).

    But group decision-making is not unique to our species. Even the smallest worker bee, the youngest Tonkean macaque, and the least dominant African buffalo get an equal say in making group decisions that directly impact their own survival. Democracy, it seems, is far from being uniquely human.

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    the links:








    Could the swiss scientist possibly be Michel Chapuisat ?

    Here are some article links, but I cannot dream of doing some criticism on this matter.

  15. Having read Marc Bekoff “The Emotional Lives of Animals”- the book-and having attended  to a conference on animal welfare with Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall, it sounds also a bit ridiculous the reverse situation that Marc Bekoff reports, so that he assumes that animals have emotions, and he quotes someone who was even afraid of saying “the dog is happy” and rather preferred  to say “the dog acts as if it was happy”, and quoted Konrad Lorenz : “It is even a worse sin not atributing emotions to animals- than “anthropomorphization” -not an exact quote-
     In fact, the dog is really happy, and there are common emotions among different species, and the evidence is, of course, the evolution of the brain(s) and it´s functions- emotions- that vary in degree among species, not that we may be happy, but not the dog.
    There are too many silly skeptics about animals having emotions, and their excuse to be silly is “anthropomorphization”.

  16. A very interesting and scientifically fact-filled and valuable article. But what seems to be more important here is to try to look at this article from a different angle: from an angle of assumption that first of all, whatever the bee and other animal world representatives collective social arrangement mechanisms are, it seems at least reasonable not to consider democracy as a postulate or axiomatic, or even actually, not illusionary, existing pattern at all for we shall start with a question: “Is there any real democracy which can be seen in the human world?”. Studying as many social processes as possible in a try to catch a regularity, consistent pattern or some rule as well as scrutinizing serious philosophers’ treatises we can’t but at least assume that interaction between hoi polloi and hoi oligoi doesn’t always display (or let’s say ‘not so often or even rarely displays’) a real democracy, and it seems that almost in every civilized society there IS a division into ‘highers’ and ‘lowers’ – i. e. hierarchy. Of course, we can observe other examples of societal structural arrangement in different ethnic entities but what attracts me more in this article (of course not derogating its scientific value – now I’m not touching this aspect at all) is to try to search for another title for it: not to compare it with less sophisticated arrangement such as democracy but with more complicated like arrangement in Greek poleis… How do you think?
    Thanks to everybody who replies and to everybody who reads my commentary.
    My regards,

  17.   @rdfrs-0f652bce65c0043dae15a2eceea0d63d:disqus – Studying as many social processes as possible in a try to catch a regularity, consistent pattern or some rule as well as scrutinizing serious philosophers’ treatises we can’t but at least assume that interaction between hoi polloi and hoi oligoi doesn’t always display (or let’s say ‘not so often or even rarely displays’) a real democracy, and it seems that almost in every civilized society there IS a division into ‘highers’ and ‘lowers’ – i. e. hierarchy. Of course, we can observe other examples of societal structural arrangement in different ethnic entities

    The analogy with bees is interesting, because as with bees, human societies and individuals have a maximum size of community, after which the structure changes with breakaway factions. (In the case of bees – swarms)

  18. ” (…) not to compare it with less sophisticated arrangement such as democracy but with more complicated like arrangement in Greek poleis… How do you think?”

    As I understand it, the greek society existed with it´s functions, such as war, administration of justice and territory, education, family household, and work division …. but five forms of governing would be thought as available to govern it, and the discussion about the best one would have occupied philosophers  (Aristotle thought the best way to govern the city would be democracy). 

    A paralel for me would be to think of which kind of marriage would be the best, considering it´s function (the care for the survival of the offspring). would it be better for a child to have many fathers to give the child best economic chance (poligenic marriage sounds indeed a good economic choice for the most poor surroundings).

    In fact, I think of democracy as quite sophisticated, for it differs so much from medieval age in which society was conceived as a body (organicism), and the differentiation between people was too profound and considered natural, so that democracy, as it came from the ancient world, seems to me quite sophisticated and challenging.

    The idea of conceiving human life as submitted to blind laws of nature (as it is more convenient), as regarding homosexual marriage as antinatural (but not for instance the celibacy of priests) isn´t but an ideological analogy of the “natural world”, regarded as blind, because it is not a human construction.
    Nietzsche, for instance, knew better that concerning human life, we are not blindly “natural” (but cultural), what the Vatican seems not to get. More comprehensive of this peculiar condition of human life seems to have been Nietzsche for having perceived the “trap”.

  19. Very good read. 

    Instead of listening to them lying to us about issues, we may as well vote for whichever candidates have the best dance moves just like the honeybees…

  20. best dance moves just like the honeybees

    In general, I was thinking the latest dance craze should be “do the honeybee”.
    But, there are certain candidates I’d rather not watch dance!

  21. A more specific mechanism that helps to regulate population levels is called “quorum sensing”. For instance, the queen bee in a hive can tell when the hive is full by the crowding and thereby delay laying more eggs for some period of time.

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