Attentive bee colonies and social graphs

Greater variety in an audience ensures greater attentiveness to the message.

All the bees in a colony are the offspring of one mother – the queen. However, there can be as many as 20 different fathers to the 60,000 social insects. The queen leaves on her first flight out of the hive as a virgin and returns, with all the sexual experience, and sperm, she will ever need. During that one maiden flight, she will mate with many drones from various colonies- drones are the only male bees in the colony, they are stingless and useless except for their sperm and the first to get kicked out when food sources dry up.

The diversity created by having various different genetic lines inside her is an important survival attribute for the colony. Colonies with greater number of “fathers” are more resistant to disease and better able to regulate colony temperature.

Diverse colonies are also more attentive to the famed “waggle dance” of returning foragers:

Scout bees leave the colony in search of food, whether pollen or nectar, and having found some return to the hive. Upon arrival they are greeted by as yet flightless bees who take their precious cargo. The returning bee then does a dance which  indicates the position of the pollen or nectar supply in relation to the colony and the sun. This dance is accurate enough to guide bees to the exact spot where the pollen was collected up to 3 miles away.

But not every dance results in bees using the information to go foraging themselves. The enthusiasm with which the forager dances may indicate the scale of the found bounty, and a limp dance may not recruit new foragers. Interestingly, in colonies where there is only one father, the bees inside the colony are less attentive to the dance of the returning forager.

Relative strangers make for more attentive groups.

Mapping the bee colony onto the human web, where other users are pollinators who go out foraging and report back what they have found, my experience suggests diversity does the same in information streams. I am more likely to click on links from the strangers of Twitter (varied group including users I disagree with) than I am links posted on Facebook (all are in some way friends) – though there are admittedly fewer links on Facebook.

Assuming my experience is not isolated, it seems that Twitter and Facebook emphasise different aspects of a social “superorganism” like the bee. Whereas Twitter is function-oriented, Facebook is cohesion-oriented.

The group of twitter people I interact with is not too concerned with identity. We do not belong to a group other than “twitter users”. While Twitter does have some cohesion-focused functionality (favourite’s, follow back, RT), the main thing that Twitter serves for is to seek out and distill the kind of information that I am interested in. It highlights sources and tells me how to get there. People engaging eachother on Twitter are bound more by what they want to do than by who they know. They are brought together (not united for these “swarms” are temporary even if repeated) by common endeavour or interest.  Twitter encourages stranger to stranger relationships in which collaboration is the first (and perhaps last) act of relationship.

On the other hand, Facebook’s hive analogue is not the forager and waggle dance, but rather the queen’s mandible pheromone. It is this pheromone which is passed from bee to bee, holding the colony together under the joint identity of the current laying queen. Similarly, Facebook’s functionality allows us to engage is social activities that reinforce our belongingness. The goal is reinforcing identity, mutuality, friendship. There are even some bona fide queens out there, making sure they post on everyone’s wall, inviting all to their events, unconsciously putting their stamp on interactions (through the innocent act of catalysing or stimulating others to take part in FB). Collaboration in Facebook emerges from the development of relationships – you invite people to events because you already know them.

When there is identity around familiarity there is a need to maintain familiarity. The bulk of Facebook transaction is maintenance of cohesion. When identity is around activity, the action itself maintains identity. On Facebook my social graph, my colony, is determined by who I know. On Twitter its determined by what I do. In Facebook the superorganism is effectively static (add or subtract new friends from a pool), in Twitter the superorganism us flexible – whoever I am following today or whoever has tweeted a term I have searched.

Which is better for monetisation and honey? A beekeeper wouldn’t hope that his honeybees prioritised action over cohesion or vice-versa, but should prefer and encourage diversity.


Diversity of online groups not only creates attentiveness but also helps “break echo chambers“. It may be the very act of being exposed to other points of view that makes us more attentive.