Bees Behave The Same Way Gangs Do, Study Reveals

An anthropologist is using bees to teach Los Angeles police about gang warfare.

A recent article published on smithsonianmag.com reveals how P. Jeffrey Brantingham, a UCLA anthropologist who studies crime using statistics, used equations pertaining to the activity of bees, to help determine the organization of gangs in the California city.

The equations derive from the 1920s, when American statistician Alfred Lotka and Italian mathematician Vito Volterra saw that rival groups of a species that were of about equal size claimed territories with boundaries that formed a perpendicular line halfway through each group's home base, meaning its hive or den. The discovery became known as the Lotka-Volterra equations, and became a key component of ecological theory.

Brantingham and his colleagues pinpointed 13 criminal gangs of about the same size in the Boyle Heights area on the East Side of Los Angeles. With help from the police, they were able to determine the location of each gang's home base. They then used the Lotka-Volterra equations to create theoretical borders between the gangs' territories.

"The model says that if you have two gangs that are equal in their competitive abilities, the boundary between them will be equidistant and perpendicular between their anchor points," Brantingham says. "It's a nice, simple, geometric organization."

Police also mapped out gang territories, but the researchers claim that their map provides a stronger reflection of criminal activity, due to the fact that there are no geographic standards to decree the borders.

"It's easier to draw a boundary along a main road than it is through somebody's backyard," Brantingham says.

Through the equations, the researchers were also able to predict areas where gang violence was most likely to occur. They predicted that 58.8 percent of gang violence would take place less than a fifth of a mile from the borders, 87.5 percent within two-fifths of a mile and 99.8 percent within one mile. After mapping the 563 gang-related shootings that took place in the region between 1999 and 2002, they found their predictions to be almost spot-on. The real-life distribution of shootings was 58.2 percent, 83.1 percent and 97.7 percent.

Los Angeles County Sherriff's Department gang specialist Lt. Chris Marks, however, warns that although most criminal activity takes place in the borders between gang turfs, the boundaries are susceptible to rapid shifts.

The UCLA researchers are planning to continue testing the maps and hope that their model will prove valuable to police departments across the country.

"Let's imagine two gangs just appear in an environment for the first time," Brantingham says. "Where should you put your police resources? This model does a relatively good job of figuring that out before any violence even happens."

And while certainly unique, Brantingham's findings should perhaps not be too surprising.

"It's surprising for many people, because we have an overinflated sense of uniqueness as a species," he says, "but millions of years of evolution have created similar solutions to common problems, regardless of what species you're talking about."

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