According to Lars Chittka, a seasoned bee researcher and a professor of ecology at Queen Mary University of London, we “now have suggestive evidence that there is some level of conscious awareness in bees—that there is a sentience, that they have emotion-like states.” Chittka recently spoke with The Guardian about his research in anticipation of his new book’s publish date. In Chittka’s conversation with the publication, he revealed his lab believes bees are “highly intelligent individuals” capable of recognizing human faces, experiencing trauma, and taking on more risk while in a good mood.
Most of these beliefs were formed after extensive work with female worker bees. Chittka’s lab taught a group of bees to differentiate between monochrome images of human faces: after showing a bee a single face and rewarding the bee with sugar water, they’d add the image to a lineup. Even without a visible reward, the bees would correctly identify the original image from the lineup. In another experiment, Chittka had several bees undergo simulated crab spider attacks atop flowers. After the attacks, the bees became “very hesitant to land on flowers, and inspected every one extensively before deciding to land on it,” even when the flowers contained no real threat. Giving the bees a treat before flight, however, helped put them in a “good mood.” The bees were far more likely to land on a flower with which they were previously unfamiliar.
(Photo: Meggyn Pomerleau/Unsplash)
Worker bees might even know how to use landmarks to navigate flight routes. Chittka’s lab trained a group of bees to fly past three identical landmarks with food at the destination. After the bees had done this several times, the lab experimented with increasing or decreasing the number of landmarks placed along the route. An increase in landmarks caused the bees to land earlier in the route than before, while a decrease in landmarks caused the bees to fly farther. This signaled to Chittka that the bees had counted the landmarks and used the total to decide they’d flown far enough.
The results of Chittka’s lab’s experimentation reveal that bees might be worth protecting for more than just biodiversity’s sake. The researcher, who’s been studying bee behavior for 30 years, admitted to The Guardian that he’s “pretty convinced” of bees’ sentience. Whether non-human animals are sentient may be an uncomfortable question for some, but it’s increasingly relevant: just last year, a UK report based on hundreds of scientific papers suggested that octopi, squids, and lobsters could be conscious and emotional beings worth protecting via legislation. In the UK, lawmakers generally consider pain reception to be centrally important when considering overall animal welfare.
“Sentience is about the capacity to have feelings,” Dr. Jonathan Birch, an animal sentience researcher at the London School of Economics, told The Guardian. “And what we’re seeing now is some evidence that there are these…emotion-like states in bees.”