Bee-school: Why is everyone suddenly so interested in the hive mind?

June 26, 2012: 12:00 PM ET

Humans have kept bees for millennia. Now some management gurus are drawing lessons from the creatures -- and it's not that far-fetched.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

bees

The not-so-secret life of bees.

FORTUNE -- Humans have kept bees for thousands of years -- which is long enough to form some admiring opinions of them. Dogs are loyal; cats are curious; but the industrious bee might just be the spirit animal for the businessperson of today. Bees are great organizers, risk mitigators, and distributed decision-makers. What creature better to learn from while navigating the fast-paced, complexly structured hives of finance we have created? In a blogpost for the Harvard Business Review, Michael O'Malley, vice president of human capital at Sibson Consulting, says as much:

Professionally, I help large businesses manage risk by focusing on how their recruiting, compensation, training, and other systems encourage people to behave. What I came to recognize was that beehives were organizations that naturally got things right. The honeybee colonies I was cultivating were structured for consistent long-term growth and the prevention of severe loss due to unpredictable environmental surprises.

As examples of bees' mastery of risk management, O'Malley points to the fact that a hive swarms, literally spinning itself off like a company, when it grows too large for its current digs. Hives are also "designed to prevent cycles of feast and famine" by constantly keeping "an exploratory force in the field." Bees use their R&D budgets wisely. Big decisions in the hive are "voted on" by way of different bees arguing their points via complex dance moves  (It's called a "waggle dance" -- I swear.) But my favorite point from his article is that a beehive has in place "a disciplined career development program." It's true!

As you can probably tell by now, I know a thing or two about bees, mostly because my father, who is generally not on the leading edge of trends, began keeping bees several years ago -- well-before many New Yorkers decided that keeping bees was a thing they should do. I'm not going to draw a correlation between our nation's financial capital and the rise of its bee population, except to point out that there are even more beekeepers in London.

A beehive may be a massively complex organization, but it's also a family (which might actually further complicate matters). As a bee ages, so does its role in the hive. It begins in the nursery, being fed and tended to by its only slightly older sisters before it graduates to their same role. By the time another set of bees has been born, that the now slightly older bee will train them. Eventually, it graduates to storing food, cleaning the hive, and, finally, flying outside in search for pollen. When it's too old to brave the outdoors, it returns to the hive for more housekeeping. The amazing thing is, every step of the way, an older bee is with a younger bee, teaching it the ropes, on down the line. Large Catholic families have some sense of how this structure works.

There is, however, a key difference between the organization of a hive and an efficient business (well, OK, there are many, but stay with me for a moment): because each job is tied to the age of a bee, and because these tasks a single bee assumes are repeated, thousands of times over, throughout the hive, and because each job is absolutely vital for the hive's continued survival, well, you have yourself a house of cards. Wipe out one generation and no nursing, no new generation of workers; no cleaning, and the hive will be invaded by any number of creatures desiring the bee's honey (wax moths and ants, mostly); no nectar, no honey, and the hive starves. What disrupts this generational work cycle on a massive scale? We do.

"If you start shortening lives of bees, just by a few days, young bees have to go to the field earlier, and the whole thing gets messed up," Dave Hackenburg tells me. Hackenburg runs an industrial pollination services company, which is a fancy way of saying that he keeps a whole lot of bees and rents hives to farmers who need their crops pollinated. There's nothing better at pollinating crops than bees. It's not even close. The problem is that those crops have pesticides, and the pesticides shorten the bees lifespan, just by a few days, and the whole thing gets messed up. Really messed up. When this happens, a hive collapses. And it's been happening so much lately that it's become an official disorder, with an acronym and everything: Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD.

So the insect we so admire for its organization and industry is getting killed by our own industrial processes, which, ironically, makes renting these increasingly scarce beehives for industrial crop pollination all the more expensive. There's a business lesson in there, probably, about how over-complication can hasten the fall of the organization, or how the things we put in place to protect us might do the most harm, or simply the interconnectedness of all things. But I'm going to leave it bee.

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