The new Fable of the Bees

This Leah Sottile WaPo piece is excellent in many ways.  Here are a few bits:

Bees are still dying at unacceptable rates…Ohio State University’s Honey Bee Update noted that losses among the state’s beekeepers over the past winter were as high as 80 percent.

…Researchers say innovative beekeepers will be critical to helping bees bounce back.

“People ask me, ‘The bees are going to be extinct soon?’ ” said Ramesh Sagili, principal investigator at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab. “I’m not worried about bees being extinct here. I’m worried about beekeepers being extinct.”

Commercial beekeepers are leaving the sector and innovative bee hobbyists are taking on a much larger role:

“I feel a social responsibility to provide good bees,” Prescott said. “It makes me happy to look at the part that I’m playing.”

…Obsessing over bee health was unheard of 50 years ago, said Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota professor of entomology. “In the past, it was very easy to keep bees. Throw them in a box, and they make honey and survive. Now, it takes lots of management.”

The story has some excellent examples:

Henry Storch, 32, does it because he felt a calling to beekeeping. A farrier by trade, Storch said he could make more money shoeing horses. But five years ago, he became obsessed with the notion that he could build a better bee…He barely flinched as a bee stung him on the upper lip.

…Storch’s mountain-bred “survivor” bees are like open-range cows: tough, hardened and less in need of close management than the bees he trucks to the California almond fields. Storch compares the effort to growing organic, non-GMO food.

The good news is this:

Amid the die-off, beekeepers have been going to extraordinary lengths to save both their bees and their livelihoods.

That effort may finally be paying off. New data from the Agriculture Department show the number of managed honeybee colonies is on the rise, climbing to 2.7 million nationally in 2014, the highest in 20 years.

Recommended.  To trace the longer story, here are previous MR posts on bees.

Square Dancing Bees and Quadratic Voting

It’s well known that bees dance to convey where useful resources are located but how do bees convey the quality of the resource and what makes this information credible? Rory Sutherland and Glen Weyl argue that the bees have hit upon a key idea, quadratic dancing or as I like to put it, square dancing.

Seeley’s research shows that the time they spend on dances grows not linearly but quadratically in proportion to the attractiveness of the site they encountered. Twice as good a site leads to four times as much wiggling, three times as good a site leads to nine times as lengthy a dance, and so forth.

Quadratic dancing has some useful properties which can be duplicated in humans with quadratic voting.

Under Quadratic Voting (QV), by contrast, individuals have a vote budget that they can spread around different issues that matter to them in proportion to the value those issues hold for them. And just as with Seeley’s bees, it becomes increasingly costly proportionately to acquire the next unit of influence on one issue. This approach highlights not only frequency of preferences but also intensity of preferences, by forcing individuals to decide how they will divide their influence across issues, while penalising the single-issue fanatic’s fussiness of putting all one’s weight on a single issue. It encourages individuals to distribute their points in precise proportion to how much each issue matters to them.

They offer a useful application

Consider a firm that wants to learn whether customers care about particular product attributes: colour, quality, price, and so on. Rather than simply ask people what they care about — which leads to notoriously inaccurate results, often where people affect strong views just to maximise their individual influence — a business, or a public service, could supply customers with budgets of credits which they then used to vote, in quadratic fashion, for the attributes they want. This forces the group of respondents, like the swarm of bees, to allocate more resources to the options they care most about.

Weyl’s paper with Eric Posner is a good introduction to quadratic voting and here are previous MR posts on quadratic voting.

The new Fable of the Bees literature

From the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, there is a new paper by Randal R. Rucker, Walter N. Thurman, and Michael Burgett (Dept. of Entomology), here is the abstract:

The world’s most extensive markets for pollination services are those for honey bee pollination in the United States. These markets play important roles in coordinating the behavior of migratory beekeepers, who both produce honey and provide substitutes for ecosystem pollination services. We analyze the economic forces that drive migratory beekeeping and theoretically and empirically analyze the determinants of pollination fees in a larger and richer data set than has been studied before. Our empirical results expand our understanding of pollination markets and market-supporting institutions that internalize external effects.

This is a deep and thoughtful analysis which extends the tradition of Steven Cheung.  There is an earlier ungated version here.  Here is a related paper from UC Davis, and here is a related paper on the economics of honeybee pollination in Georgia.  Here is a very good summary of the main piece.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

“Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive bias”

Via Michelle Dawson, here is a new paper by Melissa Bateson,

Whether animals experience human-like emotions is controversial and of immense societal concern [1,2,3]. Because animals cannot provide subjective reports of how they feel, emotional state can only be inferred using physiological, cognitive, and behavioral measures [4,5,6,7,8]. In humans, negative feelings are reliably correlated with pessimistic cognitive biases, defined as the increased expectation of bad outcomes [9,10,11]. Recently, mammals [12,13,14,15,16] and birds [17,18,19,20] with poor welfare have also been found to display pessimistic-like decision making, but cognitive biases have not thus far been explored in invertebrates. Here, we ask whether honeybees display a pessimistic cognitive bias when they are subjected to an anxiety-like state induced by vigorous shaking designed to simulate a predatory attack. We show for the first time that agitated bees are more likely to classify ambiguous stimuli as predicting punishment. Shaken bees also have lower levels of hemolymph dopamine, octopamine, and serotonin. In demonstrating state-dependent modulation of categorization in bees, and thereby a cognitive component of emotion, we show that the bees’ response to a negatively valenced event has more in common with that of vertebrates than previously thought. This finding reinforces the use of cognitive bias as a measure of negative emotional states across species and suggests that honeybees could be regarded as exhibiting emotions.

Are bees more Bayesian?

It appears, therefore, that a swarm's scout bees do something sharply different from what humans do to reach a full agreement in a debate.  Both bees and humans need a group's members to avoid stubbornly supporting their first view, but whereas we humans will usually (and sensibly) ive up on a position only after we have learned of a better one, the bees will stop supporting a position automatically.  As is shown…after a shorter or longer time, each scout bee becomes silent and leaves the rest of the debate to a new set of bees.  Figure 6.7 shows how this regular turnover in which scouts are dancing can help a swarm's scouts quickly reach an agreement…

In other words, the bee algorithms allow attrition (a time-honored process of improving the scientific community) to operate at an especially rapid pace.

That is from the fascinating book Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas D. Seeley.  Here is the book's home page.  Here is a good review of the book:

In the final chapter, Seeley suggests five lessons we could learn from bees.

†¢ Compose a decision-making group of individuals with shared interests. Here bees have a higher stake than us: all members of a colony are related (sisters) and nobody can survive without the group.

†¢ Minimise the leader's influence on the group. Here we humans have much to learn.

†¢ Seek diverse solutions to the problem. Humans realised only recently that diversity is good for a group.

†¢ Update the group's knowledge through debate. Here again, bees are superior to us, as each scout's "dances" become less effective with time, no matter how good a new site is, while stubbornness can lead humans to argue forever.

†¢ Use quorums to gain cohesion, accuracy and speed. Impressively, bees came up with this concept long before the Greeks.

As a departmental chair at Cornell University, Seeley says, he applies these principles at faculty meetings with great success.

Definitely recommended.

How Germans use bees

Airports in Germany have come up with an unusual approach to monitoring air quality. The Düsseldorf International Airport and seven other airports are using bees as “biodetectives,” their honey regularly tested for toxins.

…Beekeepers from the local neighborhood club keep the bees. The honey, “Düsseldorf Natural,” is bottled and given away as gifts.

The article is here and I thank David Wessel for the pointer.

The demise of the happy two-parent family

Here is new work by Rachel Sheffield and Scott Winship, I will not impose further indentation:

“-          We argue, against conventional wisdom on the right, that the decades of research on the effects of single parenthood on children amounts to fairly weak evidence that kids would do better if their actual parents got or stayed married. That is not to say that that we think single parenthood isn’t important–it’s a claim about how persuasive we ought to find the research on a question that is extremely difficult to answer persuasively. But even if it’s hard to determine whether kids would do better if their unhappy parents stay together, it is close to self-evident (and uncontroversial?) that kids do better being raised by two parents, happily married.

–          We spend some time exploring the question of whether men have become less “marriageable” over time. We argue that the case they have is also weak. The pay of young men fell over the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. But it has fully recovered since. You can come up with other criteria for marriageability–and we show several trends using different criteria–but the story has to be more complicated to work. Plus, if cultural change has caused men to feel less pressure to provide for their kids, then we’d expect that to CAUSE worse outcomes in the labor market for men over time. The direction of causality could go the other way.

–          Rather than economic problems causing the increase in family instability, we argue that rising affluence is a better explanation. Our story is about declining co-dependence, increasing individualism and self-fulfillment, technological advances, expanded opportunities, and the loosening of moral constraints. We discuss the paradox that associational and family life has been more resilient among the more affluent. It’s an argument we advance admittedly speculatively, but it has the virtue of being a consistent explanation for broader associational declines too. We hope it inspires research hypotheses that will garner the kind of attention that marriageability has received.

–          The explanation section closes with a look at whether the expansion of the federal safety net has affected family instability. We acknowledge that the research on select safety net program generosity doesn’t really support a link. But we also show that focusing on this or that program (typically AFDC or TANF) misses the forest. We present new estimates showing that the increase in safety net generosity has been on the same order of magnitude as the increase in nonmarital birth rates.

–          Finally, we describe a variety of policy approaches to address the increase in family stability. These fall into four broad buckets: messaging, social programs, financial incentives, and other approaches. We discuss 16 and Pregnant, marriage promotion programs, marriage penalties, safety net reforms, child support enforcement, Career Academies, and other ideas. We try to be hard-headed about the evidence for these proposals, which often is not encouraging. But the issue is so important that policymakers should keep trying to find effective solutions.”

Saturday assorted links

1. The zero dollar budget movie that topped the box office.

2. Fanta Traore at Fortune covers black economists.  Good to see the recognition, but how about Virgil Storr (my colleague, recently promoted, thousands of citations)?

3. Werner Herzog interview.

4. George Akerlof essay on the biases in economics.

5. Geoguessr, a new game, an automated version of the old Andrew Sullivan, “view out your window” where is this photo.  And what the queen bees really are saying.

6. The success story of Nigerian-Americans.

7. “Median age of COVID-19 patients in Florida was 37 last week, compared to the 60s months ago.

8. Are the ambidextrous less authoritarian? (speculative)

Bridge loans for economically troubled firms

Andrew Ross Sorkin explains (NYT):

The fix: The government could offer every American business, large and small, and every self-employed — and gig — worker a no-interest “bridge loan” guaranteed for the duration of the crisis to be paid back over a five-year period. The only condition of the loan to businesses would be that companies continue to employ at least 90 percent of their work force at the same wage that they did before the crisis. And it would be retroactive, so any workers who have been laid off in the past two weeks because of the crisis would be reinstated.

Strain and Hubbard call for $1.2 trillion in lending to smaller businesses (Bloomberg).  John Cochrane considers a version of the plan.  Here is Brunnermeier, Landau, Pagano, and Reis.  I have been pondering the following points:

1. If you are an optimist about the cycle of recovery, this is very likely a good idea.  If you let those companies fall apart, there is a significant loss of organizational capital and the matching problems in the labor markets have to be solved all over again.  Recent experience on that front is not so encouraging.

2. If you are a pessimist about the cycle of recovery, I am less sure how well this will work.  Let’s say a vaccine is difficult and there a few waves of the virus.  Many of the smaller or even larger businesses may be going under anyway, as they cannot live off aid forever.  In the meantime, you might actually want those resources to be reallocated to good transport, biomedical testing, and so on.  If the wartime analogy is apt, you don’t want to freeze the previous capital structure into place, unless of course you get lucky and win the war early.

3. If you a pessimist about the solvency of banks (have you ever seen a stress test for 30% unemployment?), you have not gotten the government out of the business of capital allocation.

4. The bridge loans might work especially poorly for start-ups.  Yes, StubHub or some company like that is around for the long run, and if the bridge loans can keep them up and running until concerts return, so much the better.  But what about the eighty wanna-bees next in line, most of whom are likely to fail?  Do they too get bridge loans?  (Do note the ecosystem as a whole is yielding positive value.)  The market itself chose the venture capital financing form for those entities, not debt.  And yet now the government is stepping in and propping them up with debt, even though we know virtually all of them are likely to fail (even pre-coronavirus that was the case).  You might think “well, we will know not to do that.”  But on what legal basis would those other “likely to fail start-ups” be excluded from the bridge loans?

4b. Is it all about “banks decide”?  How do we stop banks from simply hoarding the new money?  (The Fed already has flooded the banking system with liquidity.)  Just loaning the money to super-safe firms for de facto negative rates?  What exactly are the regulatory requirements here?  To the extent the loans are de facto guaranteed, won’t banks lend to a large number of lemons?  What do the interest rates and collateral requirements look like on these loans and how are those set in what is now a non-competitive setting?

5. Overall my sense is that American policy, if only for cultural reasons, has to proceed on an optimistic basis.  It is not clear what the relevant alternative is, and I do not oppose bridge loans.  Nonetheless I am seeing too many people jump uncritically at bridge loans with a “throw everything at the wall” approach and not thinking hard enough about their possible downsides.  At the very least, being critical about bridge loans will help us make bridge loans better.

6. No, I don’t favor governmental bridge loans for non-profits.  De facto, that this means this is a huge relative shift of resources away from non-profits and toward businesses.  YMMV.

7. I have received numerous reader emails telling me how bad, slow, and cumbersome is the Small Business Administration process for getting loans.  Will this new regime do better?

8. It is the same government that could not organize testing and mask production that we are expecting to run what might amount to a $1 trillion plus bridge loans program.

Have a nice day.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

What I’ve been reading

1. Aladdin, a new translation by Yasmine Seale.  A wonderful, lively small volume, a good reintroduction to the Arabian Nights, recommended.

2. Shalini Shankar, Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.  Not as analytical as I was wanting, but more analytical than I had been expecting.

3. Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.  Provides a good look at the interior world of tennis competition, with emphasis on very recent times.  A good look at how to think about the game, not only in the abstract, but as it plays out through the logic of particular events and tournaments.

4. Tim Smedley, Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution.  Perhaps the best extant introduction to the air pollution issue, one of the world’s most important and underrated crises, and no I am not talking about carbon.

5. Gordon Peake, Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste.  Mostly analytical, with real information blended with travelogue.  I can’t judge the content, but I was never tempted to put this one down and throw it away.

6. Roderick Beaton, Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation.  Excellent survey and overview, makes the late 19th century intelligible, among other achievements.  “For Greeks, unlike the concept of the nation, the state had always been an object of popular derision.”

Will insects go extinct?

No, probably not, no matter what you might have read or seen on Twitter.  The underlying paper is “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers.”  Here is a tweet thread by Alex Wild on the paper, here is one bit:

They make a great deal of local extinctions as a sort of proxy for global extinctions. That’s pretty dicey. I mean, bison are locally extinct here in my Austin neighborhood. But their numbers are recovering elsewhere.

They used 73 studies done on different taxa in different places. Those studies must represent tens of thousands of person-hours. Gargantuan. But the input studies weren’t designed for global assessment.

The paper itself has strong evidence on the severe pressure on butterflies and bees, and furthermore the general encroachment of humans on the natural environment probably is going to diminish species numbers and biodiversity, for insects too.  At the same time, the remaining species will adapt and evolve to meet the new potential habitats, with many kinds of insects having an easier time adapting than say gorillas.

The paper has some quite non-dramatic sentences such as: “Studies on ant populations and trends are lacking except for a few invasive species.”  And: “A single long-term study on grasshoppers and crickets is available…”

So I don’t quite see how the authors arrive at: “The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”  Bryan Caplan, bet away!