From Comfort to Constraint

We moved our bees this spring. From the grid of an urban environment close to the freeway to a meandering hillside close to the forest.

The bees were ecstatic. Almost too happy.

And so two weeks into moving, they swarmed. A sign of comfort, hives will split when they feel secure enough in their environment to branch out and start a new colony. (A daughter queen will emerge to maintain the old one.) Prior to lift off, the worker bees starve the mother queen to make her flight-ready while stuffing themselves silly with honey. Then they all set out in search of a new home.

From a place of comfort the bees fly into a place of constraint. Sustained only by the energetic honey they carry in their full guts, the departing group kicks into high gear flying about in a whir of commotion. After about 15 minutes they settle down and congregate together in a hanging clump called a swarm. The scout bees then get to work, exploring the surrounding area in search of a new place to build their hive. They test out multiple options and convince each other of promising sites through an elaborate set of waggle dances.

I recently created my own swarm. Feeling the luxury of comfort to try something new, I left my job of almost 5 years with the goal of transitioning into climate tech. My scout bees are now on the hunt, exploring new options and evaluating the promise of each. But the clock is ticking. Like the bees, I jumped from a place of comfort to a place of constraint.

Constraint is a funny thing. Despite feeling small and limited, I think it allows for greater creativity. It creates the lines of the box that you can push on. Constraint focuses attention. But how do you manage the need to explore with the constraint of shrinking resources?

Thomas Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, evaluated the group decision making of honeybees in search of a new home. In an article in American Scientist, he and his fellow researchers write:

A fundamental problem faced by any decision maker is finding a suitable compromise between swift decisions and good decisions. If an animal, or a group, must make a quick decision, it is susceptible to making a poor one because it either cannot sample its options sufficiently broadly, cannot evaluate them sufficiently deeply or both.

“Sample options sufficiently broadly and sufficiently deeply” the refrain goes. Easier said than done.

According to the researchers, the swarm’s success in balancing speed and accuracy comes from its collective intelligence. The honeybees manage this trade-off in a couple ways:

  1. Dance circuits. The more promising an option becomes, the less time a scout bee will spend communicating (dancing) the particular site to others. The communication still occurs, but in a shorter duration. This reduction in dance circuits speeds up the decision making process. (But beware: if too little time is spent dancing and insufficient information shared, no decision will be made either).
  2. Quorum size. When the number of explorers spending time at a particular site reaches 10-15, the group will collectively decide on that site.

The key to balance is the amount of time engaged in a promising option (decreasing in time the more promising it becomes) and the number of explorers deployed on a particular project.

So how, as an individual choosing my own path, do I simulate this collective behavior to achieve balance when faced with constraint? How should I deploy my scouts, and what signals should I look for?

For more reading, see:


This post is part of my new writing practice. My goal is to write every day for 12 days. I’ll aim to spend just 1-hour per day/piece… but I won’t be too strict. To keep me honest, I’ll record the amount of time I take for each piece (both writing and editing). Thanks for reading!

Day: 1/12

Total time: 1 hour 55 minutes