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The Secret Minds of Bees

These insects may experience emotions similar to our own

Life hasn’t been kind to honeybees lately. Nearly five years ago, beekeepers began to report that their charges were evacuating hives and dying en masse. (OnEarth first reported on this phenomenon in "The Vanishing" from our Summer 2006 issue.) Colony Collapse Disorder, the name scientists gave the mysterious phenomenon, claims about 30 percent of the insects per year in the United States alone and could be the result of any number of stressors, from pesticides to pathogens. Meanwhile, about one-third of the world’s crops require honeybee pollination to survive. The problem has scientists and farmers worried.

But how do the bees feel? In a new study, researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have taken the first step toward finding out. Honeybees, it seems, "are a lot more sophisticated than perhaps we thought," says co-author and ethologist Melissa Bateson. She and colleagues have shown that bees even appear to have emotions similar to ours.

Honeybees are pretty clever. They’re famous for communicating with their hive-mates by doing a "waggle dance" that tells them where to find pollen. And they can also be trained. So the Newcastle team strapped worker Carniolan honeybees (Apis mellifera carnica) into tiny harnesses and gave them two odors to smell. After one, they offered the bees a taste of sugar; after the other, bitter quinine. Pretty soon, the bees learned the difference between the two, sticking their tongues out for the smell they associated with sweets but not for the other.

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Then, the researchers shook half the bees to simulate an invasion of the hive by a predator, such as a badger, and offered the bees the original two smells plus three new blends. The shaken bees still stuck their tongues out for the scent they associated with the sugar reward, but they were much less likely to do so for unfamiliar smells than the group that hadn’t been stressed. It seemed the unpleasant disruption had turned the shaken bees into pessimists. Even though there was an equal chance the strange smell would taste good, they more often believed it would taste bad.

That pessimistic behavior is a lot like what happens "when humans are anxious or depressed," Bateson explains. "For example, if I’m feeling down and a friend tells me that they don’t have time to go out with me, I interpret that as them saying they don’t like me rather than them just saying they don’t have time to spend with me." And like people with mood disorders, the agitated bees also had lower levels of the brain hormone serotonin.

Of course, even these intelligent insects will never be able to tell us what it’s like to be a bee. But scientists can observe their patterns of decision-making -- which are known as cognitive biases -- and compare them to those of humans who can report their moods. The similarities between pessimistic bee behavior and pessimistic human behavior could mean one of two things, Bateson says. "Either cognitive bias is a poor measure of self-emotions" in animals other than humans, or "bees have feelings" that may or may not be akin to ours.

Bateson says similar testing techniques could reveal other bee emotions, and that might at least give scientists a way of "asking" Apis mellifera -- as well as other species -- how they’re doing, on their own terms, before they reach a state of crisis. For now, they can only say for certain that "the stressed bee’s glass is half empty." With their population in serious decline, that could mean honeybees spend their busy lives expecting the worst.

image of Kim Tingley
Kim Tingley is a regular contributor to OnEarth and the New York Times Magazine. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and in 2012 received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, given annually to six female writers who dem... READ MORE >
Didn't our bees suffer enough? Did we really have to do these completely unneccessary studies that prove NOTHING of aid to a beekeeper? It is fascinating how these scientists got the grant for this while there is an abundance of topics that are actually worth researching... PATHETIC....
Hi, Kerstin. I disagree with you on the count that this an unnecessary study. I feel compelled to delve further into the implications of this research. This summary of this experiment, and possibly the experiment itself, did sensationalize the idea of "emotions" in bees. The finding of the experiment, was that upon being exposed to stress by shaking, the bees were more aversive to new scents offered to them. They first found this indicator of disgust, by showing that bees stick their tongues out at scents associated with bad things. They fed the bees disgusting things associated with a certain scents, and yummy things with another scents. The bees soon stuck their tongues out in advance at disgusting scents they associated with yucky food. When the bees were shook (stressed), they stuck their tongues out more frequently at new scents. More frequently than the control group, which was not given the stress of shaking. They were more "pessemistic" that these new scents would also have a disgusting food behind them. This means that bees under stress in their environment may be MORE likely to be "pessemistic" towards new scents. Since these experimenters were able to test their "pessimism", this could be a way to measure how stressed a certain bee population is. Experiments could then be set up to examine what such potential stressors may be, such as electromagnetic power lines, pesticides, invasive species etc. The second way thi experiment would be directly useful, would be to conclude that bees may take less pollen-seeking risks, less new risks of new scents, if they are stressed. It could be that this "pessimism" could truly lead to a downward spiral in the bee population, from stressors which may seem to be minor. Bees flipped into a pessimistic, stressed mode might decline rather quickly from a simple stressing trigger. This means the cause of the bee population decline could be amplified by the pessimism of the bee, which may lead to further population decline with dwindling "entrepreneurship". Humans are surprisingly like bees, as we will soon find out with the economy. Best, Charlie
Hi, Kerstin. I disagree with you on the count that this an unnecessary study. I feel compelled to delve further into the implications of this research. This summary of this experiment, and possibly the experiment itself, did sensationalize the idea of "emotions" in bees. The finding of the experiment, was that upon being exposed to stress by shaking, the bees were more aversive to new scents offered to them. They first found this indicator of disgust, by showing that bees stick their tongues out at scents associated with bad things. They fed the bees disgusting things associated with a certain scents, and yummy things with another scents. The bees soon stuck their tongues out in advance at disgusting scents they associated with yucky food. When the bees were shook (stressed), they stuck their tongues out more frequently at new scents. More frequently than the control group, which was not given the stress of shaking. They were more "pessemistic" that these new scents would also have a disgusting food behind them. This means that bees under stress in their environment may be MORE likely to be "pessemistic" towards new scents. Since these experimenters were able to test their "pessimism", this could be a way to measure how stressed a certain bee population is. Experiments could then be set up to examine what such potential stressors may be, such as electromagnetic power lines, pesticides, invasive species etc. The second way thi experiment would be directly useful, would be to conclude that bees may take less pollen-seeking risks, less new risks of new scents, if they are stressed. It could be that this "pessimism" could truly lead to a downward spiral in the bee population, from stressors which may seem to be minor. Bees flipped into a pessimistic, stressed mode might decline rather quickly from a simple stressing trigger. This means the cause of the bee population decline could be amplified by the pessimism of the bee, which may lead to further population decline with dwindling "entrepreneurship". Humans are surprisingly like bees, as we will soon find out with the economy. Best, Charlie
Based on the reporting in this article I don't think this experiement proved that bees have emotions at all. Don't get me wrong; I'm a beekeeper and think very highly of the creatures. But bees DO smell substances, and they can detect quite quickly whether a food source is more likely to be valuable or not. Simply saying that the bees avoided the new and "unknown" substances doesn't prove anything beyond the bees' ability to distinquish among substances that they have or have not come into contact before, and therefore prefer the sweeter one.
I agree. I don't believe the conclusions about emotional response can be drawn from this experiment. I do not doubt that bees experience a range of emotions, especially in response to stressors, but don't think this example is indicative of it. For now, I hope more research goes into finding out why honeybees are in decline and a state of great distress.
we are all connected and in the most primitive and emotional of ways. this is why we share this earth and are a part of its entirety. yes im the honey bee and she is me and i am the lioness protecting my loved ones and she is me. animals feel and think and care for and love and highly intelligent insects are no different. stay connected and you will never feel alone:)
Beautifully said
I'm upside down, prone, painting the barn with my face under the eaves, in the most vulnerable position not two inches from their nest. They're in and out and around. They know me, I know them. They don't sting. We live together.
I'm not sure that the reluctance to try something new after a disturbing experience should be ascribed to "pessimism". I'd say it's more that, when still recovering from one bad experience, you don't want to risk having another. If you're feeling OK, you are more willing to risk trying something new, because you know you have the strength to handle it if it turns out badly, not because you think a bad result is less likely. Are bees capable of this kind of self-assessment? Maybe.
Dan, I think you missed the point a bit. The article makes no claim or even mention of any "kind of self-assessment". That wasn't part of this article. Their point was: it is emotional, ie non-intellectual. "when still recovering from one bad experience, you don't want to risk having another", I believe, IS what the author is referring to when he uses the word 'pessimism'. (Note, "want" being an emotional state, not a logical assessment in this case.)
It's important to never let anyone convince you, not to care. Bees are a marvel of beauty, and wonder, and their place in the world is no less special than ours. As is all life on this world. Those who evaluate them in comparison to us, should be careful less they expose their own narcissism to the world. What can one really learn from becoming insensitive, to what they are trying to understand. Don't let reason become a disguise for that insensitivity. Each morning on my way to practise Baguazhng I have observed, an increasing number of dead and dying bees. Sometimes I pause to think about what this will ultimately mean for all of us. As Einstein pointed out, without Bees we are finished as a species.
it’s probably not surprising that bad moods and negative judgments go together, theirporntube correlation is useful.