Random Decision-Making Lessons from Bees and Ants

“Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.

 How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man.”

– King Solomon

There is much wisdom in what Solomon wrote in his proverbs. There is a lot to learn by observing ants (and even bees), and these virtually invisible creatures can help us comprehend the greatest lessons in life.

For example, we know that these insects are highly disciplined and determined. They know exactly what to do each day of their lives, and they don’t stop until it is accomplished. They are also master planners, which becomes evident during the winter season when ants store up enough provisions to survive the season. Not to mention, bees and ants are team players. They are social creatures who understand the value of working together. That is not to say that they don’t work individually, but bees and ants have the strongest regard for shared expertise, of helping others and getting their help in order to complete the job at hand.

These are the kind of lessons that most of us are forgetting as human beings. Most people don’t wake up in the morning energized and happy, because they are leading purposeless lives. They don’t plan ahead, which is why they are not ready for their personal ‘winters’.

And as Michael Jackson sings, ‘I asked my neighbor for a favor she said later…’. So much for teamwork.

However, ants and bees can also teach us a lot about random decision-making.

Scientists made individuals and groups of ants pick between choices for habitable nests. When the choice was easy (i.e. one nest was considerably darker than another), the individual ant was able to take a quick decision. However, when the differences were subtler, more effective decisions came from the groups.

Likewise, scientists study honeybees using two vials of fluid. The fluid was attached to a symbol that the bees had to recognize. The correct symbol vial had sugar water (reward) while the wrong symbol had quinine yech (punishment). The bees also had the choice to opt out and not choose either symbol.

When the distinctions were easy (let’s say a circle vs. triangle), the bees chose with great success. But in face of a difficult choice (let’s say an oval vs. a circle), the bees either took longer to decide, or they simply opted out.

This teaches us something important: When a decision is simple (such as what to have for lunch), you should go ahead and trust your gut. However, if the decision will have serious consequences, it is better to take a step back, or better still, get a friend’s help.