The buzz about worker bees

My friends the bees seem to be in trouble. A radio report the other day said a mysterious illness is affecting bees in great numbers across much of the United States. It's something called "colony collapse disorder." Beekeepers show up to pollinate an orchard or a field, open the hives, and find almost no bees inside.

The initial speculations offered to explain such occurrences often tell us more about our fears than about the facts. The report evoked for me thoughts of the kind of eco- disaster that Jared Diamond has written about in his book "Collapse." We worry about the bees the way we worry about a dirty bomb on the subway or a meltdown of the Internet.

All this suggests the degree to which human beings identify with bees. "Bee" has been used to mean "busy worker" since at least 1535. And in our own day, many people seem quite willing to refer to themselves as "worker bees" within an organization.

In a land of "rugged individualism," the worker bee may not be an obvious role model. But to refer to the rank and file as worker bees who get things done is to acknowledge, however obliquely, the presence of management "drones" who are, well, in a meeting.

Hmm. That may be a bit subtle. But it's out there. An accounting firm, for instance, has offered advice on closing the gap between executive and nonexecutive compensation. The headline: "Charming the Worker Bees."

Sometimes within an organization, the "worker bees" are the generalists as contrasted with the specialists, e.g., those within the IT department. Thus another online publication posted a piece called "Worker Bees: An IT Resource in Plain Sight." Its message was that companies should be willing to let the technically inclined staff in their operating units figure out new software applications and other tech stuff the IT people are too overloaded (or maybe just too geeky) to deal with.

An observation, while we're in the IT neighborhood: The metaphor behind the World Wide Web suggests a spider. But we could have captured some of the essential features of the Internet with a metaphor based on bees instead: the Holistic Horizontal Honeycomb. The relentless expansion, the built-in redundancies, and the capacity to work around obstacles as needed are as characteristic of honeybees as of the Web.

An apian metaphor is implicit in "buzz marketing," which attempts to generate word-of-mouth advertising for products and services.

James Surowiecki's 2004 book, "The Wisdom of Crowds" maintained that "the many are smarter than the few." Now that's something bees have understood from the get-go. Surowiecki argued that when a large number of ordinary people make some kind of estimate (of weight, price, etc.) and all the estimates are averaged, the result is likely to be a more accurate estimate than one expert, or even more than one expert, could provide.

The blogosphere is in some ways a good example of bee behavior. People blog as a form of individual self-expression, of course. But their voices add up to a collective buzz that can be a useful guide to public opinion – or the state of public knowledge. The blogosphere certainly helped disseminate the wisdom of crowds in Boston during our "terror scare" of a few weeks ago. Bloggers, though, figured out fairly quickly that the whole thing was just a marketing gimmick, under way in other cities as well as Boston.

Confidential to Mayor Menino and your colleagues in other cities: Your homeland security strategy needs to include monitoring the blogosphere. Harness the energy of the worker bees.

This weekly column appears with links at

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