Swarm Theory: Birds, Bees and Internet Memes

Why Sustainability is a collective noun; and swarm theory should be trending, always. #swarmtheory

Picture the scene: the Kalahari, the Pacific, or maybe simply on the Common, over the railway from your Mum’s, where you take the dog on a crisp bright Sunday after lunch…

Crowd of protesters with banners in London.

Herds of migrating wildebeest on the plains, or shoals of fish deep in the sea, dispersing in progressive patterns – all fluid rolling edges and travelling parabolics – in response to the threat of a predatory intruder. Flocks of small birds, sweeping and swooping in a spectacle of infinite harmonics, morphing in mesmeric, magic motion, as if performing cloudscape cut-and-fill, or like some giant desktop fractal in the sky.

The effect on humans is hypnotic. Spellbound, we marvel. We fill up with wonder. We are lost in fascination.

Do we for a single moment imagine that there is one pack animal in supreme authority, one fish ultimately in charge? One leader being followed? Is there one Starling CEO, that having seen the big picture is communicating its strategic vision to all others in the squadron – some virtuoso conductor of the wingèd orchestra, choreographer of the airborne ballet?

I think not.

Swarm theory

What sophisticated and positive attributes and behaviours might we associate with the idea of a swarm? Collective responsibility. Communicative intelligence. Connective interaction. Now, does that put you in mind of anything – climate change activism, ethical trade, green consumerism, social network mobilisation?

In a swarm, individual actions only really acquire meaning when viewed in relation to one another, in the context of the collective response. There’s a dynamic energy flow. To describe such empowerment through aggregation and complexity, it is not enough merely to trot out that well-worn phrase commonly applied to any semblance of transformational synergy: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s more personal. Everyone depends on everyone else.

“Only connect…”

As we are all part of a global superorganism, the planetary ecosystem, does it not make perfect sense that the intelligent lifestyle model should be built around principles of collective responsibility? If we can understand the idea of a perfect storm, can we not conceive of a perfect swarm? Can we not make the connection? In short, if a butterfly can have an effect, can’t you?

Sustainability: Everyone depends on everyone else.

Take responsibility… and share it.

“Only connect…”

Footnote: Threat to Bee Colonies; their Value To UK Economy & Ecology; plus what You Can Do to Help…

Three different styles of beehive pictured in a garden.

Alongside such phenomena as the masterbuilding feats of termites and the sophisticated logistics of ants, the community-networking activities and communication skills of the humble honeybee, complete with signature ‘waggle dance’, have come to epitomise collective responsibility and organisational intelligence in the natural world. They offer an inspirational example to business and the built environment.

The importance of their role as pollinators-in-chief to our ecological sustainability is guaranteed. Their sustainability, however, is not.

Today, with global bee colony numbers under serious threat, there has never been a better time for organisations, communities, companies and individuals to get involved in conservation. Urban beekeeping is more than just hip, it’s downright necessary and urgent. So, what’s the buzz?

The Threat: Reports from North America of severe and widespread instances of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), affecting commercial migratory beekeepers in particular, set alarm bells ringing here in the UK. In 2007, press and media carried stories of the spread of the disease in the US across up to 35 States, with figures for the extent of colony infection running between 50% and 90% in some cases. Concerns over the likelihood of CCD reaching these shores prompted the matter to be raised in Westminster, with Defra issuing official statements to reassure UK beekeepers that, whilst close monitoring of the situation was ongoing, no evidence had emerged as yet to suggest an outbreak of similar status.

In response, spokespersons for such as the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) voiced their concerns regarding levels of Government funding for bee research – their perception being that at a time of high alert and with the threat to their industry on the rise, what they were in fact witnessing was a relative decline in real terms of financial support for the sector.

Close-up of wooden bee hotel.

The Value: Whilst the value of annual honey production in the UK runs to between £10-30M, by far the greater benefit to the national economy is derived from the value of crops grown commercially that are dependent on bee pollination: estimates range somewhere between £120-200M per annum.

The additional value of bees to wild plant pollination is clearly considered substantial in economic terms, but virtually impossible to measure.

The Call to Arms: Of the 44,000 beekeepers in the UK, maintaining some 274,000 colonies in total, approximately 300 are operating on a commercial basis, responsible for around 40,000 colonies. The remainder are small in scale, yet hugely important in function, making a vital contribution to preserving the balance of the ecosystem, at community and indeed national level.

Furthermore, garden habitats in urban areas, particularly those less manicured and left more to the care of Mother Nature, represent the pollination-positive green infrastructure, the healthy, connective eco-tissue of local biodiversity.

Therefore, to become part of the buzz around bee conservation, even if you don’t feel able to go so far as establishing your own little hive of beekeeping activity (see below for useful sources on online information and support), you can at least claim justification for a more laid-back approach to tending the garden, or window box. In other words, in the name of sustainability, sit back, run wild and go to seed!


BBKA, British Beekeepers’ Association

BIBBA, the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association

Bee Farmers’ Association of the United Kingdom

Scottish Beekepers Association

Welsh Beekepers’ Association

The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations

London Beekeepers Association