Researchers are sometimes described as busy bees but I had no idea that the opposite is literally true till I heard this NPR report on honey bees . Apparently they are wonderful market researchers!
Here's the back story. Cornell Professor Thomas Seeley is a biologist who studies swarm intelligence. Effectively he studies the idea that a group can be smarter than the individuals in the group. Replace "group" with "crowd" and of course the idea is familiar to us as the Wisdom of Crowds. But can such behavior really occur among animals too? Professor Seeley has spent 30 years studying bees and he thinks the answer is emphatically yes. That brings us to the bees-as-market-researchers hypothesis.
When hives get too big in the summer time a group of bees led by a queen break off and go find another place to form a hive. In other words a clear research problem is first defined - need to find a location with appropriate properties like being high off the ground, plenty of honey storage space etc. It's not that different from trying to identify a new retail store location. With thousands of bees in the group how should they go about doing it? Bring in the research bees!
A few hundred select bees, generally older and wiser are tasked with the research problem. They start the data collection by flying off in different directions to sample a variety of locations. They perform a careful and thorough qualitative investigation of each location they find using a multi-attribute model. When the data collection and analysis is done they fly back to the group and are ready to present their report. Now comes the really interesting part. Each researcher bee has to "sell" the great new site to its friends through the presentation. And what a presentation it is!
Each bee does a "waggle dance" an elaborate series of steps that doesn't describe the attributes of the new location, but actually provides directions to the place. Perhaps describing attributes requires higher cognitive ability and, keeping with their strengths in navigation, the bees concentrate on providing precise directions through their dance. But how do they convey their results passionately - that is, what do they do if they really believe this is the right location for the hive? They dance more! The more convinced they are the more times they dance, sometimes going into hundreds of repetitions!
The "client" bees don't just sit back and listen to the presentation, they are actively engaged. To verify the results, they follow the directions, fly to the location and do the research themselves. If they are convinced they come back and do their own presentations. And yes, the more they like it, the more times they repeat it to indicate their strength of preference. Through this great combination of qualitative and quantitative research, ultimately a well researched new location is identified and used. Sweet!
The bees are using a combination of crowd sourcing and wisdom of crowds to arrive at a good solution. The crowd sourcing is accomplished by the bees going out and finding potential solutions. The wisdom of crowds kicks in when the solutions are put to the test and the good ones rise to the top. Really, not that different from the Smart Incentives system we use here at TRC for idea generation.
There is one small additional wrinkle. When a bee feels that it has discovered the best location but is unable to convince its fellows through vigorous dancing it...gives up. Apparently they are not genetically engineered to be a zealot. However, if the wisdom- of-crowds model worked as well with bees as humans, my bet is that the selection of a sub-optimal location should be quite rare.
What lessons can we researchers learn from the bees? Simply put research well, use qual and quant appropriately, be passionate, present creatively and engage your clients.