Honeybees have been “voting” in single winner “elections” for 20-50 million years. They’ve held far more elections than humans, for a lot longer, and to decide something that mattered to each bee voter a lot more than most election winners matter to most human voters: where should we locate our new nest?
Each spring, about half the inhabitants of each beehive leave with their queen to start a new hive – in a swarm usually containing between 2000 and 20000 bees. The most important decision they need to make is: where to build that new hive? They usually find about 20 different options within about 100 square kilometers, and about 90% of the time, the bee swarm succeeds in selecting (what appears to entomologists to be) the best one. Occasionally, however, they select a sub-optimal choice or even fail to reach a decision. The latter is very bad since there is only one queen – who cannot be divided in two!
Details: Lindauer in observing 19 swarms reported 2 that failed to reach a decision. In the first, the swarm split in two, each trying to get the queen to go to its choice; but after it became clear this attempt failed, the swarm rejoined and recommenced negotiations, which after two more days resulted in an agreement. In the second instance, the swarm had still failed to find an attractive housing option even after 14 days, at which point it ran out of stored food and inclement weather approached. It then, apparently as a fallback option, decided to construct the new nest in open air right then and there, contrary to the usual policy of nesting in natural hollows. Open air nesting usually leads to the death of the hive in the winter, but in this location the winters were mild enough to make survival probable.
So bees, while not perfect decision makers, are quite good. To provide a little perspective, consider the “plurality voting method” that is the most commonly used system in human single-winner elections.
Computer simulations show that 1283 plurality-voters, given 10 choices, will succeed in choosing the best choice 32% of the time. While 32% is better than just making a random guess (10%), it is a far worse performance than bees. If the simulated-humans instead employ “approval voting” (approving choices with value greater than midway between the best and worst available) then they get the best choice 54% of the time – better, but still far worse than bees. If the humans use 0-100 “range voting” (scoring the best choice 100, the worst 0, and the rest linearly interpolated) then it’s 79%. That is at least approaching bee-like decision-making quality.
As the internet allows us to do more sophisticated voting for many ranges of issues, surely there is still yet more we can learn from the bees to make better decisions for the planet! I wonder how one can get these ideas over to politicians, though, who will often have self-interest higher on their agenda than good decision-making.