What can bees teach us about business?


Bees can offer managers vital lessons in delegation, communication and culture building. It’s all about the buzz, writes Lee Williams.

Imagine a business of tens of thousands of individuals all working together in complete harmony, responding to changes in the market, adapting quickly and efficiently, and making complex decisions with speed and initiative on an individual and collective basis. Imagine all this without a single director, manager or even supervisor calling the shots. This is a honeybee colony. And although it might sound unworkable in the ‘real’ world of business, several researchers are looking into ways that companies and other complex systems can learn from bees.

Dr Anna Dornhaus of the Social Insect Lab at the University of Arizona is one such researcher. Over millions of years social insects such as bees have evolved group problem-solving strategies, according to Dornhaus, which businesses can learn from. One of these is the problem of task allocation. “In any social insect colony and any human organisation or business you have a number of workers or participants,” says Dornhaus, “and typically they’re not all doing the same thing. You somehow have to match the number of workers to those tasks. It’s actually fairly complicated. It’s not easy to figure out what is the optimal way to allocate workers to tasks.”

The human approach is top down with one (hopefully) very smart individual at the top making the decisions and communicating them downwards. But this is not necessarily the most efficient method, according to Dornhaus. “The more decision-making is at the top, the more information flow you have to have, because in order for the top to make the right decisions they have to collect all the information and then distribute it back.”

Bees solve the problem differently using a bottom-up approach with no system of hierarchy or chain of command and with no individual making complex decisions that affect the group. Instead, according to Dornhaus, each individual bee has one small part of the available information and makes one small part of the decision. By using their own initiative based on local information and by communicating effectively with each other this creates an organic, flexible approach to problems of task allocation such as how many bees should be foraging for food and how many doing other jobs.

One stunning example of this bottom- up approach is the way honeybee colonies make a collective decision about the best place to live. When honeybees search for a new nesting site, individual scouts are sent off and each returns with information about one potential location. Incredibly, as well as communicating the position and distance of the site, these scouts also convey a level of enthusiasm depending on how good they think it is. Enthusiastic responses recruit more scouts to the same site. If these also return with enthusiastic responses, it is deemed a good choice as the colony’s new home.

External cognition

“No individual is actually comparing all the sites,” explains Dornhaus, “no one manager is having to go around visiting every place. Instead it’s this externalised cognition in a sense – the comparison isn’t happening in the brain of any individual. This very simple mechanism saves them from a whole bunch of unnecessary communication that ultimately might be pretty costly.”

Businesses, it seems, are already taking note of the benefits of a less hierarchical management structure. International brand consultants, Wolff Olins, last year carried out a study on leadership in business which found that there are definite trends towards more distributive management structures. And the consultancy has its own firsthand experience of how bees work, having installed a beehive on the roof of its London branch and created a social enterprise called Honey Club, which uses bees to bring local businesses together near the King’s Cross office.

Amy Lee, strategy director for Wolff Olins and one of the founders of Honey Club, believes that bees can provide an ethical business model. “We saw this brilliant parallel with the bees,” she says, “because they coexist with each other, they all rely on each other and they play a wider role in the ecosystem in general. There were just these really nice lessons for us as human beings who can manage to live in quite isolated ways if we don’t try hard to mix with each other.” Bees can even teach us something about equality in the workplace according to Lee: “All of the worker bees in the hive are female which seems to be a nice parallel in terms of what we should aspire to, or at least to acknowledge that the powerhouse of an organisation can be female.”

Another social enterprise using bees for business is Hackney’s The Golden Company, which helps improve the employability of young people by working with bees and marketing their own honey- related products. Project director, Gustavo Montes de Oca, sees many lessons which aspiring businesses can take from bees, from the flexibility and empowerment of individual workers, to the excellent communication channels which keep the hive working as one and provide its unique identity.

“The process of passing a drop of nectar through the hive,” says Montes de Oca, “is just one of the mechanisms of staying in touch by passing on the unique smell of the colony given off by the queen. It’s that idea of culture. Lots of organisations have cultures but they’re dictated to people. If it flows through constant interactions, it’s much more organic.”

And like Amy Lee, Montes de Oca sees ethics as one of bees’ greatest examples to the business world. “What I like about bees is how much positive by-product they have. That’s something I’d like to see businesses operate, instead of just one- way extractive interactions. The bees are an example that you can profit, you can survive and it doesn’t have to be at the cost of anybody else.You can benefit everyone in a massive way.”

Perhaps the idea of giving back as much, if not more, than you take will be the true legacy of bees to businesses of the future.


Photo credit: Nick Watton from Flickr