The Mind of a Bee
Bees were once thought to be just cleverly designed biorobots with a form of swarm intelligence, but individually stupid. New research, however, shows that bees are profoundly intelligent creatures with individually distinct “personalities”, that can recognize flowers and human faces, count, use simple tools and learn by observing others. Might they even be conscious?
Bees are able to construct elaborate comb architectures, have labor division and nest climate control – but conventional wisdom has it that all of this is delivered by reflex machines governed entirely by innate behavior in whose minds it is permanently dark. But we are currently witnessing a new Copernican revolution – we are discovering that we are not the only intelligent being on the planet.
Sophisticated minds are all around us in the animal queendom — not just in chimps and apes, close relatives of humans, but also in “aliens from inner space” such as the octopus, and as scientists have discovered more recently, in the bees. In my new book, The Mind of a Bee, I take you from an insect’s unique and strange sensory world to the exploration of their consciousness, and the ethical implications that arise from the fact that bees are most likely sentient beings.
When I began researching bee color vision as a budding scientist in the 1980s, I was fascinated to learn that bees lived in rich sensory world that allowed them detect some aspects of the environment that escapes us humans, such as polarized and ultraviolet light.
This made it instantly clear that the world we see is not the real or the physical world – we, like any other animal, sense only some aspects of the environment – the ones for which evolution has equipped us with the necessary sensors.
Generations of researchers before me had already discovered that honeybees’ behavior is no less outlandish – for example, they communicate about food location in a strange symbolic code that made that of the language of the cephalopod aliens in the film “Arrival” relatively unimaginative by comparison. But no one at the time thought that bees were particularly intelligent, let alone sentient beings. I had an inkling that this picture might be simplistic, when I discovered, as a PhD student, that bees were able to count landmarks.
Over the last few decades, we have learned that bees can learn simple concepts, measure the passage of time, recognize images of human faces, learn by observation and even solve problems by thinking rather than by trial and error. Recent discoveries include emotion-like states in bees, and the existence of distinct “personalities” in which individual bees are defined not just by their genetic background but also by individual autobiographic memories that shape their behavior. Bee brains are unparalleled among animals in terms of how much clever computation can be packed into a tiny speck of nervous tissue.
One special feature of the book is that we take a closer look at the remarkable historic personalities that have paved the way to our journey into an insect mind. We will encounter blind Swiss scholar Francois Huber, who reported, around the turn of the 18th/19th century, the possibility of planning abilities in the comb construction of honey bee, as well as interindividual “personality” variation by which he sought to explain labor division in the colony. Another inspiring story is that of African-American scientist Charles Turner (1867-1923) who performed pioneering experiments on the psychology of bees and other insects, while working against impossible odds, as a high school teacher and without access to scientific laboratories or libraries.
We will also learn about Karl von Frisch, whose work was under constant threat from the Nazis, but who managed to rescue his work through this dark period and went on to receive the Nobel prize for his discovery of the bee dance language, and who founded a large school of experimental bee science which your author is a 4th generation member. I would love the opportunity to speak to travel in a time machine to meet these early pioneers, and tell them of the recent discoveries for which their work paved their way. Would they be surprised, or incredulous…?
The discoveries about bee intelligence have wide-ranging implications for the understanding of intelligence in animals more generally, its evolution and neural-computational underpinnings.
These findings call into question the notion that large brains are required for intelligent behavior and open future avenues of research exploring the neural hardware mediating intelligence in relatively small nervous systems. Insect brains have several orders of magnitude fewer neurons than vertebrates, and they run their computations extremely cheaply in terms of energy expenditure. There are important lessons to be learned for sustainable information technology in the human realm.
Computers and computing already consume 10% of the world’s electricity and this is set to rise further. At present, computers are spectacularly inefficient in comparison to biological brains. IBM’s “Summit” supercomputer is hailed as one of most energy efficient of its kind – it runs at 13 Megawatts, weighs 340 tons, and occupies the floor area of two tennis courts (5600 square feet of floor space). The human brain weighs little more than a kilogram, runs on 12 Watts (less than a standard laptop computer) – yet its cognitive versatility still easily outperforms any supercomputer.
Insect brains are far smaller still – a honeybee brain has about a cubic millimetre, and runs on a tiny drop of nectar. If we could harness the power of energy-efficient computing of bees – if we better understood the principles by which they organise, store, retrieve and compute information – we might be able to make huge savings to the global electricity bill, which would in turn benefit the climate.
The microcomputer that is the bee brain thus offers potentially extremely efficient and elegant inspirations for bio-inspired information processing in real computers.
Finally, the fact that bees are most likely sentient beings has important ethical implications for their conservation. Many people are aware that wild bees are in trouble because of wide-scale habitat loss, pesticides and disease, and that this spells trouble because we need bees to pollinate our crops and garden flowers. But is bees’ utility for humans the only reason that they should be protected? I think not.
The insight that bees have a rich inner world, a unique perception, and like us are able to think, to enjoy and to suffer, commands a respect for the diversity of minds in the natural world, and with it comes am obligation to protect the environments that shaped these other minds.
Their conservation should be as much of a priority as that of orangutans or Siberian tigers. However, contrary to the threat to such distant exotic species, everyone with access to green space (even as small as a flower box on a balcony) can do something to help, by planting the type of suitable flower resources that large-scale industrial agriculture has wiped out across the countryside. The final chapter of the book is thus dedicated to generating a sense of empowerment – that by understanding bees’ psychology, one can predict their ecological needs, for the benefit of their conservation.
Exploring an insect whose sensory experiences rival those of humans, The Mind of a Bee reveals the singular abilities of some of the world’s most incredible creatures. The Mind of a Bee is now available at Press Princeton
About the author:
Lars Chittka is a German zoologist, ethologist and ecologist who is Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary College of the University of London. He is also the founder of the Research Centre for Psychology at Queen Mary. He is known for his work on the evolution of sensory systems and cognition using insect-flower interactions as a model system. Chittka has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of animal cognition and its impact on evolutionary fitness studying bumblebees and honeybees.
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