Bee Consciousness – The Washington Post

(Elvis Swift for The Washington Post)

Experiments show that bees have surprisingly rich inner worlds


The French philosopher René Descartes, whose views on animals were very influential, argued that these creatures acted purely out of reflex – they had no intellectual capacities. But since then, there has been a Copernican revolution: We now know that sophisticated spirits are all around us in the animal kingdom — not just in close relatives of humans like chimpanzees and apes, but also in “aliens from inner space” like the Octopus.

And now we’re learning how smart insects can be. As I show in my new book, “The Mind of a Bee,” the latest research indicates that even small-brained bees are highly intelligent creatures that can remember not only flowers but human faces, solve problems by thinking rather than by trying and making mistakes, and learn to use tools by observing skilled bees. They even seem to experience basic emotions, or at least something like optimism and pessimism. The possibility of sensation in these animals raises important ethical questions for their ecological conservation, as well as their handling in the crop pollinator industry and in research labs.

Social insects are traditionally thought to be completely controlled by instinct: they can build complex nests and divide their work efficiently through innate behavior, but are considered stupid as individuals, with complexity arising only at the group level. But there’s significant evidence that bees have an inner mindset—that they don’t just respond to stimuli with hardwired responses.

To investigate the learning ability of bees, scientists reward them with tiny drops of sugar water when they’ve solved a task — the same reward bees get in nature when they discover a nectar-rich flower. For example, to research bees’ facial recognition skills, collectors were first rewarded with sugar water on a platform for a black-and-white photograph of a human face. Once they learned to fly to this platform, they were faced with a test where they had to find the right photo from a number of images of other people. There were now no rewards present and the correct photo was in a different position during the test. Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of the time, they found the right face — giving credence to the common beekeepers’ claim that bees can recognize the person caring for them.

To test whether bees can count, we trained them to fly from their hive past four identical landmarks, shaped like 11-meter pyramids. During training, they found a sugar reward after the third milestone. In the tests, we increased the number of landmarks between the hive and the feeder’s training location. When we did, bees landed a shorter distance from the hive than during training, apparently thinking they had flown far enough when they encountered the third landmark. Reducing the number of landmarks had the opposite effect: bees then exceeded the training distance and flew on to look for the third landmark.

Bees are flexible in accessing memories. A master narrator of the mysteries of memory, Marcel Proust describes in “Remembrance of Things Past” how, after tasting a tea-soaked madeleine, the narrator suddenly recalls long-lost childhood memories in vivid detail. Likewise, a scent experienced by a bee in its hive can evoke the memory of a flower arrangement with the same scent. To demonstrate this, scientists first trained bees to remember two different feeding locations, about 55 meters from the hive and 33 meters apart, one smelling of rose and the other of lemon. When researchers blew some scent into the hive, it activated the bees’ memory for the correct feeding station, which they flew directly to. Thus, their memories can be activated separately from the environment in which they are learned.

Occasionally, bees activate such memories at night in the darkness of the hive and even communicate with other bees about them. Bees have a “dance language” that allows them to inform others in the hive about the precise location of a rewarding flower arrangement. The symbolic language involves repeating the motor patterns (“dances”) of a knowledgeable bee on the vertical honeycomb. The movements refer to gravity and the direction of the sun; because it is dark in the hive, bees that want to learn from the dancer must touch his belly with their feelers. Sometimes such dances are shown at night, when there is no foraging: the dancer seems to be thinking of locations visited the previous day, with no apparent need at the time, indicating that memories can be searched in an “offline ” situation.

My team has shown that, in a sense, bees can imagine things in their heads. Bees who first learn that balls, but not cubes, are associated with a sugar reward by seeing these shapes through plexiglass — in a “look but don’t touch” situation — can then identify the same shapes by touch alone. We tested this in the dark and observed the bees’ behavior with infrared equipment (such conditions are not uncommon for bees as their nests are naturally dark). Bees trained to distinguish cubes from spheres in the dark can also later recognize the correct shapes when they see them but not touch them, indicating a form of mental image that can be achieved with more than one sense.

Bees can also solve problems in a way that indicates they understand the desired goal. In one experiment, bees learned to roll a ball to a specific area to get a sugar reward — a simple form of tool use, where an object must be manipulated in a specific way. Untrained bees then improved the technique. A trick was played on the “demonstration bee” so that only the farthest of three balls could be moved to the goal area (the other two balls were glued to the horizontal surface). A naive bee was then allowed to observe the skillful bee’s performance – always moving the farthest ball – three times. But when the observer was then only allowed to enter the arena and now none of the balls were glued, he spontaneously (without trial and error) chose the closest ball to go to the goal, solving the task in a way inspired by the demonstrator, but clearly not just mimicking his performance. Observer bees could only have come up with this solution through some sort of mental exploration. This indicates a form of intentionality previously recognized only in large-brained animals, such as chimpanzees.

And we now have evidence of emotion-like states, which use the same criteria that researchers use to assess whether pets like goats or horses are kept in conditions that result in a positive or negative outlook on life. We trained bees to learn that blue was rewarding and green was not (another group of bees was trained with the opposite conditions) and then gave them an intermediate color, turquoise – an ambiguous stimulus. Crucially, the bees’ verdict on this ambiguous color depended on what happened before the experiment. Unexpected rewards before the test seemed to induce an optimistic mood in bumblebees, making them more curious about new stimuli and more resilient to aversive stimuli. This optimistic state, as in humans, was dependent on the neurotransmitter dopamine.

A negative emotional state can be caused by predator attacks. Some species of spiders sit on flowers and try to catch pollinating insects. We recreated this in the lab, building a plastic spider with a mechanism that held a bumblebee momentarily between two sponges and then released it. The bees’ behavior fundamentally changed: they seemed more nervous for days after such attacks. Aside from a simple learned aversion to flowers with artificial spiders, they scanned each flower extensively before landing, and even if there were flowers without a robot spider, they sometimes fled — as if “seeing ghosts.” The bees behaved as if they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A discerning reader might note that any of these abilities can be programmed into an unconscious robot. She would be right, but such a robot often failed at tasks that a programmer hadn’t built into it. For example, a robot built 20 years ago to mimic all the abilities of a honeybee, as understood at the time, would not have been able to exhibit the abilities of bees discovered more recently: rolling balls toward a target, shaping recognize with all senses or show emotion-like states. Nature has no room to produce beings that simply pretend to be conscious. So, while there is no accepted formal evidence for consciousness in any animal or machine, common sense dictates that growing evidence of consciousness does indeed indicate what it appears to show.

The observation that bees are most likely sentient beings has important ethical implications. It is well known that many species of bees are threatened by pesticides and large-scale habitat loss, and that this poses problems because we need these insects to pollinate our crops. But is the usefulness of bees the only reason they should be protected? I do not think so. The understanding that bees have a rich inner world and unique perception, and can think, enjoy and suffer just like humans, commands respect for the diversity of spirits in nature. With this respect comes an obligation to protect the environments these spirits have shaped. Common migratory beekeeping practices in industrialized agriculture, for example, involve the frequent transport of beehives across continents on trailers, which not only spreads disease but is most likely detrimental to the psychological well-being of bees, further weakening their health. Finally, countless insects are sacrificed every year in research labs and the insect food industry, whose methods are completely unregulated. It is likely that our findings on the ability of bees to suffer extend to other insects, and this should be taken into account in any legislation governing their treatment.

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