Do Animals (Besides Us) Vote For Their Leaders?

The Waggle Dance Photo: Smithsonian video screen grab

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

We humans aren’t the only ones who have devised democratic methods for electing leaders. As our count for the presidential winner continues, the Guardian explains how other species “vote” for leaders that can make or break their survival. Honeybees, for example, use a bottom-up process for finding a new spot for their hive. Instead of the queen dictating where to go, a small swarm of workers bees scout out locations, then return and perform a “waggle dance” of directions for the group. The more a scout bee likes the site, the more times she’ll dance the route for other bees to follow. Similarly, homing pigeons usually have a leader that guides the flock to fly in harmony. But that leader can lose power, either falling back into the flock on its own or its fellow pigeons choosing to no longer follow it.  

Why This Matters:  We need to ensure 30% of the planet is protected by 2030 because the human-induced imbalances in the natural world are impacting waggling honeybees and soaring birds, among other species. A study published earlier this year found that honeybee populations had dropped by nearly 50% in North America compared to baselines earlier in the 20th century. Most of the world’s crops rely on bees to pollinate them, so this decline could lead to global issues with our food supplyDespite their natural ways of selecting leaders, the leaders WE select are even more important for those species’ survival and thus our own.

Extinction Risk

“Bumblebees contribute to pollination services for a bunch of different plants, among them are things like tomatoes in greenhouses, but also a whole lot of other species in open-air agriculture,” Dr. Jeremy T. Kerr, one of the study co-authors, told the New York Times. A recent study on tree swallows found that even though the birds have been breeding earlier over the course of the last 30 years, their earlier-hatched chicks faced challenges, primarily worse weather and not enough food. On a normal, natural rhythm, the time birds breed and the time there are enough flying insects for their young are in sync. Climate change is throwing this coordinated timing off, yet another reminder that one adaptation doesn’t mean survival. 

To Go Deeper:  If you watching vote-counting makes you anxious, enjoy this waggle dance video of bee democracy in action, with David Attenborough explaining how honeybees direct their fellow bees in the hive. 

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