Bees and intelligence

Posted by on Jan 31, 2008 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Beeswarm Pic c/o Terranova

Great piece in last week’s NS about the swarm intelligence of bees, likening it to the operation of the brain (as we understand it now).

Thing that has become clear to me amid all the clamour of the recent debates around Duncan Watts’ stuff on Influencers and how behaviour spreads through populations is this: we connect intelligence with one unit of mental processing – one brain. We find it hard to understand how good (no, not always the absolute best but mostly good enough) solutions can be generated by more than one brain or indeed by lots of bodies and no brains.

We see intelligence almost entirely as a feature of individual agents: IQ tests are of one agent’s intellectual abilities; EQ of one agents emotional ones etc etc. When we ascribe intelligence to a group we tend to mean that all of the individuals who make up the group are intelligent, rather than meaning that collectively the group is intelligent. That’s why “swarm” or “group” intelligence seems so interesting: it breaks our rules of what intelligence is.

But have you noticed how we have to keep putting the individual back in: deep down we can’t believe in intelligence in any other mode. To make ourselves feel better we go back to our individual intelligence rule: some folk are smarter than others; some are less smart than these…so (deep breath) therefore the former must be doing something to the latter. Bingo! Influencer model!


  1. Jon Howard
    January 31, 2008

    Last summer we had a bee swarm in the garden. They arrived, en mass, mid afternoon, and had settled in the apple tree witin the hour. We got a bee keeper around, and he predicted they would just get up and go at the same time the next day. They did. Pretty much to the hour. Spooky.

  2. John Dodds
    January 31, 2008

    If someone has wider exposure than others, then that means more people might copy him/her? Is that the subconscious influencer model?

  3. Roland Harwood
    February 3, 2008

    Ken Thomson at is very good on this subject and we are working with him on a project in the music industry looking at how bands interact with their fans applying bioteaming principals. All very interesting.
    Another article in NS (I think) recently talked about the difficulty for human beings to understand the inherent uncertainty in quantum physics, which plays around with the concept of what an object is (objects are waves and waves are objects – cue lots of philosophical head scratching and counter intuitive conclusions such as parallel worlds and half dead cats etc). Interestingly the article looked at the impact of our English language on our understanding and drew parallels with native american language where, if I understood it correctly, they have fewer nouns and more verbs, and therefore found quantum physics easier to comprehend.
    Linking back, maybe the reason we can’t get past the individual intelligence is because we are visual, object obsessed species, but when we talk about group intelligence you’ve got nothing to point at, as the interesting bit falls between the individuals and is harder to describe with our noun dominated language.

  4. mark Earls
    February 3, 2008

    Roland – thanks for stopping by. Ken’s collaboration sounds v interesting – would love to know more.
    The piece from NS you’re thinking about is referenced here:

  5. Roland Harwood
    February 9, 2008

    Aha – you are several steps ahead of me. Interesting article – that’s the one. Will respond separately but in the meantim more info on Ken’s project here:
    and a nice article on bioteaming here: