Bees and ants are team players

Ant as aphid farmer

Ant as aphid farmer

Bees and ants have been reported in one study as ‘true team players’. This makes a useful metaphor but the idea, like the creatures, need to be treated with due caution

The study was reported by the BBC as follows:

Bees and ants are true team players unlike other creatures who seek safety in numbers for selfish reasons, according to researchers. Scientists from Edinburgh and Oxford Universities used mathematical models to study “swarm behaviour”.

In some co-operative groups of animals – known as superorganisms – members are closely related, and work together to ensure their shared genetic material is passed on, the researchers concluded. In other groups they perform a policing role, for instance in honey bee hives where worker bees destroy any eggs not laid by the queen to ensure the queen’s offspring survive.

Dr Andy Gardner, from the University of Edinburgh, said:

“We often see animals appearing to move in unison, such as bison or fish. However, what looks like a team effort is in fact each animal jostling to get to the middle of the group to evade predators. By contrast, an ant nest or a beehive can behave as a united organism in its own right. In a beehive, the workers are happy to help the community, even to die, because the queen carries and passes on their genes.
However, superorganisms are quite rare, and only exist when the internal conflict within a social group is suppressed – so we cannot use this term, for example, to describe human societies.”

The findings, funded by the Royal Society, are published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.

Dangerous idea: treat with caution

Why is this such a potentially dangerous idea? Mainly because it can blur the lines between scientific observation and speculation which becomes accepted as scientifically proved fact. My ‘summary of a summary’ extracted one important aspect of the study, and maybe even then readers, may not have picked it up.

What were the scientists studying? Ants and bees? Well, no, not really. They were studying mathematical models of swarm behaviours. And that’s important to remember.

Ants bees and beliefs

I have been a long-time supporter of studies of animal behaviour in the interest of understanding human behaviours. I take the view knowledge of all animal behaviours, including our own, can provide ideas (‘theories’) of practical significance.

But when such efforts are made, we must be vary careful to understand that a metaphor is a mapping of reality. It’s hard sometimes to realize how much we rely on metaphors. As someone pointed out, ‘the map is not the territory’.

A mathematical model reveals relationships between mathematical variables. In this case, the mathematical relationships are connected with social concepts such as ‘swarming’, ‘selfishness’, ‘leadership’ and ‘team work’.

In explaining the results, the scientists find themselves resorting to language like this

In a beehive, the [workers] are [happy] to [help the community], even to die, because the queen carries and passes on their genes. However, [superorganisms] are quite rare, and only exist when the [internal conflict within a social group is suppressed] – so we [cannot use this term], for example, to describe human societies.

A complex mix of analytic statements and assumptions are present in just one sentence from the BBC report above. Students of leadership should reflect carefully on such a statement, in the interests of ‘map testing’ and maybe ‘map making’.


You can see the original text here of Gardner and Graf’s paper.

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