Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Last Fall I was selected to be a member of the inaugural class of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows. Last week came our first big test – be advocates for entomology and entomological research on Capitol Hill. And guess what? We had a very productive time.

I’ve wanted to write about our Congressional visits from before I even left on my trip, but was struggling to find a hook that would pull together government, politics and bioinspiration. I could go with a story about dominance hierarchies (=pecking order) in both human and animal societies, or one about gift giving and the influence it can buy, or an essay about insects that steal from other insects. Or was this finally going to be the blog post where I could discuss my favorite topic in all of biology: parasitism?

Actually, turns out that the Congressional visits were challenging, exciting, beneficial, fun, inspiring, etc. The most appropriate bioinspired analogy I can make is to quorum sensing seen in social insects.

Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly. Picture by Eran Finkle via Flickr.com

“Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly.”
Picture by Eran Finkle via Flickr.com

Honeybees, for instance, use quorum sensing to find a new nest site. A swarm comprised of 10,000+ bees decides on the best spot to start a new nest, not by letting just the queen decide, but by gathering information from different scout bees. A couple of hundred scout bees convey information to others in the swarm about the quality of about a dozen possible nest sites. Nest sites can be superb, mediocre or lousy, or somewhere in between. Based on the information about the possible site’s quality conveyed by the scout bees the swarm as a whole decides which site is most suitable. It is important that all information is freely shared, no bee’s opinion is stifled. Coalitions of scouts that have discovered a certain site will try their best to convince other scouts to go check out a potential site. The better the potential site, the more vigorous the bee will waggle-dance. A more vigorous dance will convince more uncommitted scouts to go check out the site. So there is competition between the coalitions, but what is important is that the uncommitted scout does not blindly follow the information. She will go check out the site but will decide for herself if she will advertise the site when she returns to the swarm. In other words, acceptance of a poor site (through cheating or through the creation of mass hysteria) is impossible. Through quorum sensing many opinions are heard and evaluated, yet this is done rather quickly so that the swarm is not vulnerable for long. Options are not debated “to death”.

Probably not the best nest site.  Picture by By Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Probably not the best nest site.”
Picture by Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]

Good group decisions, the bees show us, can be fostered by endowing a group with three key habits:
1. structuring each deliberation as an open competition of ideas,
2. promoting diversity of knowledge and interdependence of opinions among a group’s members
3. and aggregating the opinions in a way that meets time constraints yet wisely exploits the breadth of knowledge with the group.

Seeley, Visscher and Passino

American Scientist May-June 2006

What we can learn from honeybee democracies (yes, there is even a fantastic book on this topic) is that any democratic government can make the best decisions, within a reasonable time period, when it goes through phases of collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. Quorum sensing is a type of decision-making process in any decentralized system – one without a clear boss. Any decision-making group should rely on information of individuals with knowledge about the topic, shared interests (stakeholders) and mutual respect. Debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution. Sound familiar? Too idealistic?

Probably also not the best nest site. Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, 309 AMU/MXACW, 13 Oct 2005, submitted by Wayne Fordham, HQ AFCESA/CESM, Tyndall AFB, FL.

Probably also not the best nest site.
Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, Tyndall AFB, FL. via Flickr.com

I may seem a little idealistic here but while visiting the Senate’s and House of Representative’s offices I definitely had the feeling that constituents, experts, stakeholders and staffers were coming together to share information in an effort to help inform the legislators. All our meetings with staffers, and in my case in person with a Sen. Dick Durbin: D-IL and Rep. Rodney Davis: R-IL, were worthwhile. Staffers seemed interested, if not always knowledgeable about entomology (though many of them were). And it was clear to us that staffers were keen to have access to the best scientific information, preferably written/conveyed by experts using clear terminology and in a concise manner.

The leadership of the Entomological Society of America has put resources into the science policy fellowships, science policy committees and communication about science policy with the understanding that the pay-off may not become obvious until a few years from now. Even what this “pay-off” may be is not clear – it can vary from ESA name recognition, more familiarity with the field of entomology among legislators (beyond pesticide-spraying- or butterfly-net-waving-scientists), more expert entomological input into important policy decisions, job opportunities for entomologists with a science policy interest, more state and federal funding for entomology, etc.

  • In principle the United States government encourages collective fact finding with an open sharing of ideas. Again, I felt that our message was welcomed, but we, ESA members, need to become more proactive in sharing our message. We need to continue to visit State and Federal government offices and explain to them why research on insects is important – why sustained funding is important. We need to be more proactive about sharing our entomological science and expertise. ESA needs to set the agenda, not react to it. If you, the scout bee, are not showing up, or do not have the credibility, then your opinion will not be considered. Over time, with name/research-field recognition, your expert science-based opinion may become more valued (of course, this does not happen in honeybee swarms, and neither does the importance of money in buying name recognition – this is where the bioinspiration model (or is it our current democracy model?) breaks down).
  • On paper a strong democracy should promote diversity of knowledge and vigorous debate among stakeholders. There is, however, a difference between scientific evidence and pseudo-science and the two should not receive equal consideration. Scientific evidence may also not line up with constituent (stakeholder) economic, social and cultural interests. And, again, money and power may outshine solid scientific evidence and stifle debate about the science. By asserting ourselves as the premier source of entomological science we should be able to be part of the debate.
  • The strength of quorum sensing in relation to honeybee swarm nest finding is that in a relatively short time period a consensus is reached. Currently consensus building in Congress on many issues is, let’s just say, difficult. But when it comes to a topic such as Pollinator Health then I am pretty hopeful. (On the issue of the importance of pollinator health we have generally strong bipartisan support.) One of the greatest weaknesses that I see is that even within the ESA itself consensus building is taking too long. For more than 6 months members have been working hard on position statement regarding Pollinator Health and Tick-borne diseases. Meanwhile Congressional hearings have been held, and White House “national strategies” have been set in motion – sometimes with little or no input from ESA. Again, we should help set the agenda, not just react to it!

Our message as entomological experts (7000+ ESA members) will be heard depending on if our information is backed up by good scientific evidence, is supplied in a timely manner and communicated properly. In addition, our representatives in government need to be open to receiving this information. Their willingness to incorporate our advice may depend on their committee assignments, ability to understand the topic, their home districts and states, their constituents, etc. ESA has to start somewhere in gaining more influence and securing sustained research funding for their members. I believe this month’s congressional visits by the science policy fellows was a great beginning.


Now we may be on to something. Picture by Ontheway2it via Flickr.com

Note: I want to thank Lewis-Burke Associates, the government relations firm that is working with ESA to train the Science Policy Fellows. We learn so much from them. Thank goodness for their collective sense of humor and endless patience!

Further reading:

Ariel Rivers also blogged about our DC trip: Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows do DC!


or the crib notes version


Some more tweets related to our DC trip. Sadly we were unable to self-organize to take a group picture – guess the ESA Science Policy Fellows are more similar to solitary bees.


I met personally with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) (below) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Pictures provided to me by their offices. Also pictured is Karen Mowrer from Lewis-Burke Associates.