Bees pollinate our crops, help ecosystems, and provide indispensable environmental services. Recent studies have also found that they can count, have complex emotions, and like playing — even complex games. But do they have a mind that experiences consciousness and imagination? Do they form their own, internal world?
Not too long ago, you’d have been ridiculed for even suggesting this. Even now, when there’s been so much surprising research on the cognitive world of bees, many researchers would scoff at the idea. But in The Mind of a Bee, Lars Chittka makes a compelling case for it.
Chittka, one of the world’s leading experts, is very careful about making claims — as any respectable researcher should be. He doesn’t make assumptions, he builds a case; drawing from research from the past couple of decades (both his own and from other researchers), he gathers evidence from all angles. He draws from cleverly designed observational scenarios, neurological observations, and all sorts of creative studies, all of which hint tantalizingly at a bee’s cognitive inner workings.
The Mind of a Bee By Lars Chittka Princeton University Press | Buy on Amazon
The world of a bee
In 1974, American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a seminal essay. In the essay, called What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, it’s argued that “conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon” present in many animals, even though it is “difficult to say […] what provides evidence of it.” Nagel argued that we can’t really know what it’s like to be a bat because its faculties and cognitive processes are fundamentally different from what we know as humans.
Scientists rightly fear anthropomorphism. It’s tempting to attribute human emotions and thoughts to animals, but it’s a slippery and usually misleading slope. But in recent years, we’ve perhaps gone too far out of our way simply to avoid attributing human-like traits to animals. As mentioned in another recent book about animal cognition, researchers are loath to even say that animals experience dreams, calling them things like ‘oneiric behavior’ or ‘episode recalling’. While these may be more precise, they obfuscate the most important questions about animal cognition.
Chittka takes a subtle jab at this approach right from the introduction. He argues that it is important to imagine other minds and worlds created by other minds, noting that some philosophers see “no point in trying to imagine such strange alternative worlds. I disagree…”.
So let’s imagine what it’s like to be a bee. You have wings and you can fly, but your vision is very different, you experience life in the ultra-fast lane, all your senses are distorted (from what humans perceive), and there’s a world of danger out there — every error or just bad luck could end your life. It’s hard to grasp what all that would feel like, but simply imagining it is not the goal. Building relevant studies is.
For instance, bees learn to classify flowers and navigate their surroundings to reach the most rewarding flowers. They can also learn from their peers and copy their technique for greater rewards. But how do we know that bees grasp the task and aren’t simply copying things like mindless automatons? Well, Chittka points out experiments where observer bees solved the task by copying the goal rather than copying the technique, and sometimes, even improving the original technique they witnessed.
Bees also seem to enjoy playing, even when there’s no reward, and they’ve been shown to grasp complex things like odd and even numbers, and even have an understanding of the concept of ‘zero’.
Chittka’s recounting of all this (and much more) is engaging and intellectually stimulating. Everything is presented in a simple and straightforward way, but also in a clever fashion. Every time Chittka gets the reader enthused and seems to make a bold claim about bee cognition, he takes a step back and mentions that there could be alternative mechanisms that explain the observed behavior. But in the last chapter, when he puts it all together, the conscious nature of bees becomes almost impossible to deny. It’s a bit like building a case from circumstantial evidence: on its own, no piece of evidence is enough to make the case; but taken together, there’s almost no other plausible explanation. It’s a creative approach to storytelling, and a very effective one. Despite it being basically a science book, The Mind of a Bee keeps you glued like it were an action-packed story where you just need to know the final conclusion.
I was thrilled that Chittka also spends a bit of his book discussing the researchers who made the discoveries and humanizes both them and their research. Too often, scientists are seen as nameless and faceless, as lab coats inside an ivory tower — but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Chittka walks us through some of the pioneering (and contemporary) scientists in bee cognition, sharing their vision, their ideas, and often, their tragedies. It’s an unexpectedly heartwarming part of the book.
Still, the bees and their abilities make up the core of the book. From neuron studies to observations of bees using tools, The Mind of a Bee is a deep foray into all of the things that make bees much more special than you thought. It’s hard to go through the book and not feel that we need to totally rethink what we know about bees (and probably, other insects as well).
Ironically, some of what we learned about them was aided by the fact that bees are regarded as ‘lesser’ creatures. You don’t need as much ethical approval for bee studies as you’d need for other invertebrates like octopuses. To suggest that bees have full life experiences would put more pressure on researchers and would make it a bit more difficult to conduct studies — but confronting the reality of the bees’ rich inner world absolutely warrants a thorough re-thinking.
Underestimating other animals’ intellect and emotions is not a new thing, we’ve been doing it for some time. We’re slowly changing our perspective of mammals, some birds (like corvids), and even other animals like cephalopods. Inviting insects into this consciousness club would be a pretty radical leap, but a warranted leap.
Bees have demonstrated flexibility, adaptability, and an ability to grasp remarkable concepts. They have unique personalities like us, they build things, and they have ideas of what they want to achieve. No doubt, bees deserve to be included in the consciousness club, and we need more (ethical and cruelty-free) studies to get an even better grasp of what life is like for a bee.
Ultimately, although Chittka doesn’t address this in the book, The Mind of a Bee invites another, broader conversation: if bees (and possibly, other insects) are conscious, how many other creatures are we underestimating? Are we swimming in a biological sea of consciousness, blissfully ignoring it as we try to reach our own goals? That may be a conversation we’re not ready for yet, but it’s a conversation we should probably try to have.