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Bee Minds

Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, explains in his 2022 book, The Mind of a Bee, “that even tiny-brained bees are profoundly intelligent creatures that can memorize not only flowers but also human faces, solve problems by thinking rather than by trial and error, and learn to use tools by observing skilled bees. They even appear to experience basic emotions, or at least something like optimism and pessimism. The possibility of sentience in these animals raises important ethical questions for their ecological conservation, as well as their treatment in the crop pollination industry and in research laboratories.”


Recent research verifies that bees are not “responding to stimuli only with hard-wired responses.” For example, "to probe bees’ face recognition skills, foragers were first rewarded with with sugar water on a platform in front of a black-and-white photo of a human face. Once they learned to fly to this platform, they were confronted with a test in which they had to locate the correct photo out of a number of images of other people. No rewards were now present, and the correct photo was located in a different position during the test. Nonetheless, they found the correct face over 80 percent of the time — lending credence to the common beekeepers’ assertion that bees can recognize the person who looks after them.


Bees have memories that they can recall apart from the environment in which they learned the memory. “To demonstrate this, scientists first trained bees to memorize two different feeding locations about 55 yards from the hive and 33 yards apart, one smelling of rose and the other of lemon. When researchers blew one scent or another into the hive, it activated the bees’ memory of the correct feeding station, to which they flew directly.


Bees are able to recall “such memories in the darkness of the hive at night, and even communicate with other bees about them. Bees have a dance language by which they can inform others in the hive of the precise location of a rewarding flower patch. 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; since it’s dark in the hive, bees that want to learn from the dancer need to touch its abdomen with their antennae. Sometimes, such dances are displayed at night, when no foraging takes place: The dancer appears to think about locations visited on the previous day, without an obvious need to do so at the time, indicating that memories can be browsed in an offline situation.


“Bees that first learn that balls, but not cubes, are linked to a sugar reward by seeing these shapes through plexiglass — in a look but don’t touch situation — can subsequently identify the same shapes by touch alone. We tested this in darkness, viewing the bees’ behavior with infrared equipment (such conditions are not unusual for bees, since their nests are naturally dark). Bees trained to tell cubes from spheres in darkness could also later identify the correct shapes when seeing but not touching them.” As human behavior, we would describe this as picturing something in our minds. 


“Bees can also solve problems in a manner that indicates they understand the desired goal. In one experiment, bees learned to roll a ball to a certain area to obtain a sugar reward — a simple form of tool use, in which an object needs to manipulated in a specific way. Untrained bees then improved the technique. A trick was played on the demonstrator bee, so that only the farthest of three balls could be moved to the target area (the two other balls were glued to the horizontal surface). A naive bee was then allowed to observe the skilled bee’s performance — always moving the farthest ball — three times. But when the observer was subsequently allowed into the arena alone, now finding none of the balls glued down, it spontaneously (without trial and error) picked the closest ball to move to the goal, solving the task in a manner inspired by the demonstrator but clearly not merely imitating its performance. Observer bees could have conjured up this solution only through a kind of mental exploration. This indicates a form of intentionality that was previously recognized only in large-brained animals, such as chimps.


“And we now have evidence of emotion-like states, using the same criteria that researchers employ to evaluate whether domestic animals such as goats or horses are being 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 subsequently presented them with an intermediate color, turquoise — an ambiguous stimulus. Crucially, the bees’ judgment of this ambiguous color depended on what happened before the experiment. Unexpected rewards before the test appeared to induce an optimistic state of mind in bumblebees, making them more curious about new stimuli and more resilient to aversive stimuli. This optimistic state relied on the neurotransmitter dopamine, as it does in humans.


Professor Chittka, concludes: “The insight that bees have a rich inner world and unique perception, and, like humans, are able to think, enjoy and suffer, commands respect for the diversity of minds in nature. With this respect comes an obligation to protect the environments that shaped these minds. Common migratory beekeeping practices in industrialized agriculture, for example, involve the frequent transport of hives across continents on trailers, which not only spreads disease but is most likely detrimental to bees’ psychological well-being, weakening their health further. Finally, countless insects are sacrificed annually in research laboratories and the insect food industry, the methods of which are entirely unregulated. It is plausible that our findings about bees’ capacity to suffer also extend to other insects, and this should be considered in any legislation regulating their treatment.”


Might we widen our compassion to protect bees and other insects in their living-worlds? How might this be an eco-choice for you?


Lars Chittka, “The Consciousness of Bees,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2022,

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