33FEATURE 6 June 2018
Bees aren’t just smart, they’re sensitive too
Far from being mindless pollen-collecting drones, bees can solve problems, make choices and have reactions that look suspiciously like human emotions
Angry? Perhaps, if the latest findings are anything to go byPlainpicture/Design Pics/Marion Owen
By Richard Schiffman
AS YOU watch a bee bumbling about on a summer’s day, you might assume nothing special is going on. We have come to accept that these humble insects are little more than mindless drones buzzing around on the autopilot program of biological instinct. We presumed that they lacked individuality and simply slaved mindlessly for the larger purposes of the hive.
But, under the close scrutiny of imaginative scientists, we are now learning that bees actually have unique personalities that enable them to solve problems, make choices and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions. “Bees are capable of behaviour that rivals in complexity that of some simple mammals,” says Andrew Barron at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. All with a brain the size of a mustard seed.
We have known for decades that bees working collectively are capable of great things – not least symbolic language in the form of their waggle dance, which they use to share information about the location of food sources.
Then findings started trickling in that showed individual bees deserved more credit. They can follow intricate rules, distinguish between patterns in nature, sort sensory stimuli by shape and colour, and even have a rudimental ability for mathematics. But in the past few years apian skills have been shown to have truly mind-boggling complexity.
To test the limits of bee abilities, Olli Loukola and his colleagues at Queen Mary University of London recently taught bumblebees to roll small plastic balls into holes to win slurps of sugary water. Soon, the bees were devotedly operating the miniature vending machines, frequently finding shortcuts to the sweet prize – some even walked backwards, a behaviour that isn’t natural to them. In another experiment, bees were trained to pull strings to release tasty rewards.
The string study, published in 2016, was arguably the first evidence of tool use in invertebrates, an ability previously reserved for birds and mammals, particularly primates. Other research has found that bees in the lab will only attempt a certain task if they have all the requisite information, implying a rudimentary form of metacognition.
They are also expert navigators, according to Joseph Woodgate, a behavioural ecologist also at Queen Mary University. “Like travelling salesmen, bees need to move between a large number of flower patches in the most efficient route possible,” he says. By attaching miniature transmitters to bees and tracking them with radar, he recently found that his subjects not only remembered where they had previously been, but also flew shorter, straighter paths as time went on. This demonstrates that they are constantly learning from the environment and innovating, rather than simply mechanically repeating themselves.
Findings like these have astounded biologists, who once assumed that bees resembled genetically programmed bots driven by instinct and incapable of solving problems or learning new skills.
Still, perhaps the biggest surprise regarding apian intelligence was the finding that the inner lives of bees are governed by complex feelings – mental states that are in some ways similar to human emotions like discouragement and contentment.
In humans, feeling happy makes us respond more positively to ambiguous situations. To see if this happens in bumblebees, researchers gave sugar water to some bees but not others before they were set free to forage. Those that received the syrup were more likely to seek out unknown sources of food.
Further tests confirmed the bees weren’t simply feeling more adventurous thanks to a sugar high. Instead, the unexpected reward appeared to trigger a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which – as it does in humans – left the bees in a more positive state of mind. Those that supped on sugar were also braver, venturing out sooner after scientists simulated a predator attack.
Lead author Clint Perry of Queen Mary University won’t go so far as to assert that the adventurous bees were “happy” – a state that is hard enough to define in ourselves. But other research backs up the idea that bees have feelings too. Melissa Bateson and her colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, showed that vigorously shaking bees to mimic a predatory attack made them – in her words – “more pessimistic” and less likely to risk trying novel nectars, whose odours they didn’t recognise.
The question of whether animals have human-like emotions is extremely controversial, making some scientists reluctant to state that bees have similar feelings to us. But even though bees can’t fill out surveys to report on their levels of contentment, it would be surprising if they lacked at least equivalents of emotional states, says Perry. “The reason why emotions likely evolved is to help organisms make better decisions,” he says. An animal that couldn’t feel something like fear when confronted with danger, or go-getter enthusiasm when food is plentiful, would have poor long-term prospects for survival.
And while it is unlikely that bees need to unburden themselves to their mates after a long day’s slog in the meadows, Perry thinks there may be other ways in which, just like in human society, apian emotions prove themselves useful for the social cohesion of the group. “Each species evolved emotions for its own specific purposes,” he says.
“Bees may help us with the most intractable problems of the human mind”
Together these findings suggest that bees are at the forefront of insect cognition. Even more remarkable, the feats they have pulled off are normally associated with the largest and most recently evolved part of the human brain, the neocortex, which the minuscule bee brain lacks. This has left some neurologists scratching their heads about how insects solve problems we once thought required our own “higher” centres to crack.
“When it comes to brains, there is clearly more than one way to do things,” says Barron. For instance, animals like bees that lack a prefrontal cortex, the part of the neocortex involved in planning, aren’t restricted to the grey stuff in the head, Barron points out: they can process information in bundles of nerve cells in other parts of their body.
As we learn more about bee brains and how they work, Barron thinks we will gain fresh insight into our own cognitive and emotional processes. Bees may even help with some of the most intractable problems of the mind, such as how thoughts get processed in the brain.
“There are so many things going on at once within our central nervous system at any given moment that it can be tough to trace out what precisely is happening,” says Barron. But with bees’ stripped-down nervous system, the pathways are much clearer and easier to chart. “By studying their far simpler system, we will learn a lot about how our own more complex brain works as well as how it evolved,” he predicts. That’s something to make a buzz about.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Buzz off”
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Richard Schiffman is a freelance writer based in New York City
Magazine issue 3181, published 9 June 2018