Why do bees seem smarter than other insects?

A colony of bees is a complex entity. Consider how the bees build their hive. A bee-hive is a result of some extraordinary engineering. Its cells are regular hexagonal walls – a shape that maximises strength for a given amount of material. The walls of each cell in a honeycomb are 0.1 mm thick with a 2% tolerance. In comparison, the plywood that we use for constructing our homes has a tolerance standard of about 10%.

If that isn’t complex enough, consider how the bees communicate. You may know that bees do this through dancing, but that is not all. Suppose a bee wishes to convey the direction of a flower-bed to its brethren, it dances at a certain angle to the vertical axis of the honeycomb. The more intricate the dance, the farther away those flowers are.

Observing these complex feats begs the question – how can an organism whose brain is the size of a pinhead pull them off? Are bees smarter than we give them credit for?

It turns out that individual bees themselves aren’t the most intelligent creatures. Most of their behaviour is dictated by simple rules that are burnt into their genes. The genetic code of a bee is programmed based on the bee’s role in the colony. The queen bee lays eggs throughout her life. A worker bee gathers honey, raises larvae and builds the hive. A drone bee fertilizes the queen. At an individual level, the duty of every bee is to follow simple rules. But when thousands of bees follow these rules in perfect coordination, they turn into a bee hive. This property of how several simple parts in a system form a complex whole is called emergence.  A complex bee hive is comprised of millions of simple interactions of individual bees.

Emergence is ubiquitous. An orchestra’s harmony is the emergence of its individual instruments. A city’s traffic is the result of simple interactions between its motorists. An organization is the culmination of the actions of each and every one of its employees.

As leaders at the helm of emergent systems, it is tempting for us to institute top-down “strategic” interventions. But most strategic interventions fail because they disregard the most underlying interactions that emerge to form the organization’s culture. This led Peter Drucker to famously quip, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

On the other hand, the best functioning emergent systems are self-managed. There is no ‘manager bee’ that oversees the construction of a hive – every bee is an autonomous unit that does its duty independent of supervision. Great leaders realize this. They lay down the right principles while empowering people at every level of the organization to make autonomous decisions.

Emergent systems illustrate how the details at the lowest levels matter the most. Bypass them to alter the strategy directly, and you are likely to fail. Focus on the details and the ‘big-picture’ takes care of itself.

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