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Bees Are Masters At Risk Management

Beekeeper and “human capital consultant” Michael O'Malley talks about what he's learned about how bees organize themselves and manage risk.

Take, for example, their approach toward the “too-big-to-fail” risk our financial sector famously took on. Honeybees have a failsafe preventive for that. It's: “Don't get too big.” Hives grow through successive divestures or spin-offs: They swarm. When a colony gets too large, it becomes operationally unwieldy and grossly inefficient and the hive splits. Eventually, risk is spread across many hives and revenue sources in contrast to relying on one big, vulnerable “super-hive” for sustenance.

Here's another lesson by analogy: No queen bee is under pressure for quarterly pollen and nectar targets. The hive is only beholden to the long term. Indeed, beehives appear to underperform at times because they could collect more. But they are not designed to maximize current returns; they are designed to prevent cycles of feast and famine (a death sentence in the natural world). They concentrate their foraging on the most lucrative patches but keep an exploratory force in the field that will ensure future revenue sources when the current ones run dry. This exploratory force (call it an R&D expenditure) increases as conditions worsen.

Distributed decision-making is another honeybee strategy for mitigating risk. Individual bees make decisions based on local cues and information, making the beehive perhaps the original empowered organization. In contrast to stodgy centralized systems, bees are able to make high-quality, relatively quick choices through distributed authority because the colony has mechanisms in place that reinforce sound judgments and execution.

Still curious? The #1 rated beekeeping book on amazon.com is The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally.