Bee Lessons

They may be facing a worldwide decline, but bees can still teach us a lot about leadership.

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They may be facing a worldwide decline, but bees can still teach us a lot about leadership.

A momentous decision hangs in the balance: where to move the entire organization. Diverse opinions are aired and all options evaluated intensely. Finally, a decision is made—not by fiat or majority vote. Everyone agrees, eliminating dissension.

This could be, of course, a lean tech company whose efficiency would make any start-up owner proud. Or a flat organization that steadfastly refuses to follow any hierarchy to foster creativity. Actually, it’s a scene that takes place among critters that humans have both feared and loved for centuries: the humble honeybee.

The insect, which fosters a $15 billion pollination industry, has probably gained most attention in recent years for a mysterious decline in population. Indeed, since the mid-2000s, beekeepers have reported sudden disappearances and disturbing shortages of honeybee colonies. But while researchers work hard to figure out the problem, research on bee behavior has grown only more sophisticated. And by all accounts, it isn’t something to swat away; these little stingers can offer some surprising leadership lessons.

“Everybody is on the same page in a honeybee society. They are all rowing for the same team,” says Gene Robinson, Ph.D., who leads genomic biology research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and its bee research facility. “Honeybees all have a shared stake in the hive. How does one engender those same feelings among the members of a human organization?”

Our own research on bees discovers that while most people might think the world’s bee capital would be in some tropical forest, it’s actually in Bruce, South Dakota (human population: 204). There, Adee Honey Farms, the world’s largest honey producer, boasts more than 82,000 honeybee hives that produce four million to five million pounds of the sweet substance each year. But you can find much more modest beekeepers, the kind who oversee a handful of hives, almost anywhere; indeed, it’s the hobbyists who make up the majority of the 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the U.S., according to the National Honey Board.


One of them is Jeff Reader, an affable, soft-spoken man who tends about 35 beehives in Illinois. A paramedic by profession, Reader has kept bees since the back-to-nature days of the 1970s. His operation, Reader’s Apiaries, does a brisk trade at local farmers’ markets, selling honey and honey-fruit spreads.

On an overcast fall day, Reader took three brimmed hats draped with netting from the back of his van. “It’s a good day to visit the bees,” he tells us. “It’s cloudy and cool, so the bees aren’t likely to be too aggressive.” That is good news—given that between 30,000 and 50,000 bees live in each of the dozen hives at this wooded location, off the beaten path at a nature center near Schaumburg, about 30 miles from Chicago.

Only a few hundred or so of the honeybees are visible, most of them clustered around the entrances and exits of the human-made wooden hives, the size and shape of a two-drawer filing cabinet. Reader fits each hive with thin pieces of wood that restrict the area through which bees can enter and exit. These “entrance reducers” help winterize the hive while keeping out insect intruders. As he toils, many of the bees returning to the hives are carrying yellow patches of pollen on their rear legs, like saddlebags of supplies to sustain honey production.

It’s about now that one of our leadership lessons emerges: The importance of purpose. The honeybee is iconic for productivity—consider the cliché “busy as a bee.” And while not widely appreciated, the payoff for that hard work will be enjoyed only by the next generation (and the humans who harvest a portion of the honey). “Their work will help the new bees survive,” says Reader. “Their purpose is all about the next generation.”

As Reader packs up his tools and surveys the hives, he contemplates the balance between the individual and the team: “The colony needs each bee, and a single bee, itself, will die without the colony.” He takes this lesson into his work in emergency medical services, including for events at the United Center. Doing his job well means keeping others safe and healthy.

Next we are on our way to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Beyond the barren cornfields, on a gravel road past grazing cows, is the school’s bee research facility. As a single bee flies figure-eights overhead, Robinson explains his 40-year fascination with these tiny creatures. “Bees are not little people, and people are not big bees; we have a lot more complexity. But we can learn a lot by looking at and learning from nature.”

The primary lesson from bee society is the power of the decentralized hive. While there is a queen, she’s no command-and-control leader. Bees all have specific jobs, from foraging for pollen and nectar to tending the eggs laid by the queen. But all operate in an interdependent ecosystem that requires information to be disseminated broadly, in complex and interactive ways. For example, University of Illinois researchers found that about 20 percent of the foragers in the hive account for about 50 percent of the foraging. If these elite foragers are removed, that information hits the hive like a news flash. Suddenly the pheromones (essentially a chemical perfume) emitted by these superforagers are missing. That absence triggers young bees to step up their own development to fill the gap.

The most fascinating type of bee communication is so-called “waggle dancing,” which was first documented by Austrian zoologist and Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch. As he observed, bees use the honeycomb as a kind of dance floor to act out a series of movements to communicate such information as the direction and distance of a food source. There’s no competition among the foragers; rather, shared information means cohesion and a better chance for the group to survive.
Nowhere is that democratic power displayed more profoundly than when it’s time to swarm, a behavior observable among bees in the wild. When a colony gets big enough and strong enough to split, one group of bees leaves with the old queen, while a new queen stays in the original hive with the remainder.

First, the departing swarm takes off for an interim place, such as a nearby tree. Then a small number of scouts (fewer than 5 percent of the swarm) fly off in all directions in search of potential sites for a new hive: a hollow tree, a chimney, the space between two walls or another enclosed cavity. Returning to the group, the scout bees communicate their site assessments through waggle dances. One after the other the scouts waggle their bodies, with the longer and more vigorous dances given for the more favorable sites. Soon, all the swarm is buzzing in favor of one location, and off they fly to their new home.


“They play out in the marketplace of ideas so that one emerges as the winner. That’s the process of consensus building in a beehive,” Robinson explains, adding there is an obvious parallel for human organizations: encourage the full expression of ideas, determine the best, and work toward full buy-in.

As bee researcher Thomas D. Seeley, Ph.D., wrote in his book “Honeybee Democracy”: “These little six-legged beauties have something to teach us about building smoothly functioning groups, especially ones capable of exploiting the power of democratic decision making.”

Yet many people overlook the humble honeybee, Robinson believes, because their efforts are indirect. Apples obviously come from apple trees, but bees must pollinate the apple blossoms. It’s a fact well appreciated by farmers who grow crops from avocados to zucchini. California’s almond crop, for example, is totally dependent on bees, requiring more than one million hives to be brought in each year from as far away as Maine.

But the honeybee is in trouble. Populations declined mysteriously in the mid-2000s, when honey-producing bee colonies dropped below 2.5 million from a peak of about 3.5 million in 1989. About 2.7 million colonies were reported in 2015, according to published statistics. The beekeeping industry blames “colony collapse disorder,” which threatens the health of the insects, as well as commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the U.S. The causes of the decline remain unknown, although diseases and parasites that weaken the bees are thought to be contributing factors.

For his part, Robinson is dedicated to helping protect honeybees from the “4 P’s”: pesticides, parasites, pathogens and poor nutrition. Among the culprits are urbanization that turns open fields into malls and housing developments, and mechanized farming that reduces flowering weeds. Although honeybees are not endangered, the threat to their numbers is a serious problem that scientists and agriculturists take seriously. Humans can help, as Robinson suggests: “Plant more flowers.”

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