The Minds of Bumblebees
August 3, 2022 1:18 PM   Subscribe

"...The observation that bees are most likely sentient beings has important ethical implications. It’s well known that many species of bees are threatened by pesticides and wide-scale habitat loss, and that this spells trouble because we need these insects to pollinate our crops. But is the utility of bees the only reason they should be protected? I don’t think so. 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..."

Bumblebees can create mental imagery, a 'building block of consciousness', study suggests
The tiny insects are able to recognise objects by sight that they've only previously felt, and vice versa, according to study co-author Cwyn Solvi from the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Macquarie University.

"Many have thought that bees' small brains simply react to stimuli and output motor behaviours without any internal representations of the world," Dr Solvi said, "In humans, the ability to solve a cross-modal recognition task, like those the bumblebees solved, requires mental imagery."
The question now is whether we have underestimated the intelligence of bees, or overestimated how complex a brain needs to be to perform cross-modal recognition.

Expanding Consciousness
Bees and other insects show signs of possessing complex self-awareness, but if the scope of conscious beings widens, where will it end?
See also

Is Consciousness Everywhere?
What is common between the delectable taste of a favorite food, the sharp sting of an infected tooth, the fullness after a heavy meal, the slow passage of time while waiting, the willing of a deliberate act, and the mixture of vitality, tinged with anxiety, just before a competitive event?

All are distinct experiences. What cuts across each is that all are subjective states, and all are consciously felt. Accounting for the nature of consciousness appears elusive, with many claiming that it cannot be defined at all, yet defining it is actually straightforward.

Here goes: Consciousness is experience..That's It.
↑ Upon review: Previously by beagle*

*Joined: May 10, 2001 -- Yikety yikes yikes yikes! Previously²!

All of the above provides pollen, nectar, honey, food for thought.

At the very least
posted by y2karl (27 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Don't ask me for a citation, but this whole thing, all of it is a consciousness, we enjoy the delusion of owning our infinitessimal, bit of it, but we are not alone in it ever. The energy supercedes the physical (knock, knock,) the energy binds us into one, and it is all conscious. Bumblebees, conch snails, squirrels, jellyfish, shrimp, anything which migrates is networked in. One of the scary effects of us, is our wonton destruction of a web of existence for many other conscious beings, with no regard or remorse, because we were allegedly "given" this domain to do with what ever benefits us, pleases us. By us I mean male religious leaders of many "faiths," or those for whom might makes right.

We have been trained all our lives to ignore the magical connectedness, consciousness, of all things, including members of our own species, especially if their basic needs interfere with our immediate comfort, or tribal comfort.

Bumblebees, sleeping on the faces of down looking sunflowers, keeping out of the rain, bumblebees flying close enough by our ears to delight some, and terrify others, solitary awesome, visitors to our gardens they deserve our affection, and the world they are intimately aware of, a part of.
posted by Oyéah at 3:06 PM on August 3 [13 favorites]

Intelligence is modeling is probably the best comment I’ve written in twenty years on this site, and likely ever will. Bees have one piece of the puzzle that we had previously thought they didn’t (or more accurately were uncertain whether they had but leaning towards no), but it’s only one piece. The point at which it’s appropriate to print breathless headlines like “Are ____ Sentient?” with bold assertions of an internal thoughtlife is after something passes the mirror test (which is also insufficient on its own, but much closer in that internal/external state categorization is essential to any kind of “inner” life). Mental imagery - if borne out - is way more credit than I’d have given bees (though it makes sense given their collective gathering tasks) but still far lower on the complexity scale than some of the other fundamental components of sentience as we traditionally think of it.
posted by Ryvar at 3:26 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]

...Bees also display optimistic and pessimistic emotional states. In such tests, bees first learned that one stimulus (such as the colour blue) is linked to a sugar reward, while another (such as green) is not. They were then faced with an intermediate stimulus (in this case, turquoise). Intriguingly, they responded to this ambiguous stimulus in a ‘glass half full’, optimistic manner, if they had encountered a surprise reward (a tiny droplet of sucrose solution) on the way to the experiment. But if they had to suffer through an unexpected, adverse stimulus, they responded in a ‘glass half empty’ (pessimistic) manner.

Perhaps, then, insects don’t just have minds, but also moods. Psychotropic drugs are not just the province of humans; insects can be subject to their effects as well. Volatile anaesthetics, appetite-suppressing stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens are naturally produced by various plants and fungi. These are not only accidental byproducts of their biomolecular machinery, but for their own defence in deterring herbivores. Yet they don’t always deter: it transpires that bees prefer flowers whose nectar is laced with low levels of nicotine.

...The biologist Lewis Held at Texas Tech University believes that there could be a ‘deep homology’ in apparently diverse structures across species that served common functions, such as the eye. Rather than seeing these as instances of ‘convergent evolution’, where features pop up separately, Held and others have found evidence of certain shared underlying genetic scaffolds that produce these features in their various forms. For example, we did not inherit our legs and eyes from insects, or by different modifications from a common ancestor. The common ancestor of humans and flies was an unknown legless worm of the Cambrian period. Yet both humans and flies possess a head, a thorax, an abdomen, legs, and sensory organs.
Upon review:

One of the things that startled me, Ryvar, was that bees, bumble or honey, recognize human faces and treat us as we treat them: honeybees don't attack their bee keepers unless the latter are crappy at their job.
posted by y2karl at 3:32 PM on August 3 [8 favorites]

And to find that they are thinking, feeling and dreaming creatures delights me.
posted by y2karl at 3:38 PM on August 3 [6 favorites]

Lots of things have emotions without sentience or consciousness. Your dog has all kinds of rich, complicated emotions without the capacity for self-recognition. As much as I love Star Trek TNG and Data in particular, his whole mystic quest for emotions makes about as much sense from a cognitive perspective as Darmok and Jilad makes from a Linguistics perspective: it’s missing the point so badly it’s not even wrong.

Your emotions are hormonally-induced regional modifiers on neurotransmitter function. In artificial neural networks we can approximate this with layer-specific or global modifiers on the input weighting functions/activation thresholds. It’s super basic, primitive stuff and entirely orthogonal to a question as complicated as identity. It’s just way more subjectively meaningful than it ought to be, so we place vastly outsized importance on it.

The faces thing is interesting - any verification they ruled out smell or clothing color-based cues?
posted by Ryvar at 3:42 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]

Bumblebees should terrify no one --.there are no barbs on their stingers and their sting is so mild. One got trapped behind my glasses when I was pruning back a butterfly bush and tagged me on my right eyelid. I felt a tiny electric shock and got a tinier blister that shrunk to nothing in a minute.
posted by y2karl at 3:56 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]

Bumblebees are great, but honeybees can be right bastards. I’m whatever the opposite of allergic is to bees - mosquito bites are worse for me - but my sister is dangerously allergic to them, and was bed-ridden for three days because of one. I slaughtered their colony bare-handed in retaliation, and at the tender age of ten was filled with the sudden understanding that I was and forever will be a latent genocidal monster, and not being special all other humans must be as well.

Mostly I hate honeybees for forcing me to confront all this far too young. Bumblebees, on the other hand, have never made me compare myself to Hitler. So we’re cool.
posted by Ryvar at 4:04 PM on August 3 [4 favorites]

I've outlined my view of consciousness before -- it's a post-hoc narrative device ultimately motivated by the fact that our brains can come up with multiple ideas but our bodies can only implement one. Given which, it's not at all outlandish to suggest that bumblebees are conscious.

That said, I feel like the critical capacity at issue here isn't consciousness but more like existential angst -- pain is fairly simple and can be quite tolerable on its own, real suffering involves much more of an imaginative leap (put crudely, that the anticipation of unavoidable future pain presents as immediate pain) and requires a lot more than just the raw ability to have experiences.
posted by bjrubble at 4:25 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]

The Big Bang of one thing, focused on an infinitesimal point, seemingly indivisible, into us and everything we witness is something we accept without hesitation. It’s not such a big step step to wonder if consciousness too is actually one thing which looks like many.
posted by thoroughburro at 4:38 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]

The way I view this revolves around the concept of “meaning.” Reality, the universe as a whole, is fundamentally meaningless. What do I mean by this? Meaning is a property ascribed to something else. And residing in this meaningless universe is life. Life is what ascribes meaning. In a very simple case, a being in an environment in order to insure survival, ascribes the following properties - friend/foe, food/not food, danger/safe, and for higher orders of life, species reproducing creature/not species reproducing creature to all encountered in the environment. There are very simple life forms that avoid the bad and seek the good using whatever chemical, neural, or otherwise mechanism they possess. I won’t venture to define what consciousness is, but meaning resides in consciousness. Mental imagery implies both an image, purely subjective, and a viewer, subjectivity. The piece of granite on my desk, does not seem to have any concern for survival, I will say it is not conscious. But the microorganisms in me are concerned for their survival and do things to insure it. Conscious? Well maybe as a group…
posted by njohnson23 at 4:50 PM on August 3

This is surely the right place to post my bumblebee rescue video (YT 1080p).

This is the moment it realises that the liquid I’ve been chasing it around the countertop with is actually homemade nectar.

I was able to remove the mite with the tip of a cocktail stick.
posted by rog at 4:51 PM on August 3 [12 favorites]

...what? Cows and Pigs are clearly, obviously, demonstrably sentient, and... we eat the shit out of them. You want us to focus on the bees? (Who, ok, sure, might hit a few of the "sentience" milestones but clearly, obviously, demonstrably, don't hold a mental framework in the same ballpark as mammals.) What's the real call-to-action here?
posted by metametamind at 5:31 PM on August 3 [4 favorites]

How do tiny little bee brains do so much?
“One reason why we study bees — and we actually have quite a bit of funding from an engineering research council at the moment — [is] because of the obvious question of how can you navigate reliably over long distance with essentially zero percent errors, by using such a tiny microcomputer as a bee has?”

“So, I imagine you could steer a jumbo jet from start to finish with a computer as 'large' as a bee brain.”
Bees have brains for basic math: Study
...Building on their finding that honeybees can understand the concept of zero, Australian and French researchers set out to test whether bees could perform arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction.

Solving maths problems requires a sophisticated level of cognition, involving the complex mental management of numbers, long-term rules and short term working memory.

The revelation that even the miniature brain of a honeybee can grasp basic mathematical operations has implications for the future development of Artificial Intelligence, particularly in improving rapid learning.

Led by researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the new study showed bees can be taught to recognise colours as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction, and that they can use this information to solve arithmetic problems.
posted by y2karl at 7:50 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]

So bees can do one thing I can't do and another thing I can't do very well. That takess my self esteem down a notch...
posted by mmoncur at 8:43 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]

Bees join an elite group of species that understands the concept of zero as a number
...The honeybee now joins the elite few species which have demonstrated an understanding of zero to this advanced level. While rhesus monkeys, vervet monkeys, a single chimpanzee, and one African grey parrot have demonstrated the ability to learn or spontaneously understand the concept of zero, this is the first time that such a high level of cognitive number processing has been observed in an insect.

...It was not until 628AD that zero had a written record which noted it as a number in its own right by Indian mathematician Brahma Gupta in his book Brahmasputha Siddhanta. This is the first written record to provide rules to use when doing calculations with zero.

The earliest record of the symbolic zero (0) we are familiar with today is from an Indian inscription on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India (AD 876). Arabic numerals, along with the modern idea of zero, did not reach the West until 1200 AD.

Interestingly, while it took centuries for the concept of zero to be fully understood and utilised in human culture, honeybees have learnt to apply previous number knowledge to demonstrate an understanding of zero within a day when presented with training to promote numerical cognition.
posted by y2karl at 9:02 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]

The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth (excerpt from Cosmos: Possible Worlds with Neil deGrasse Tyson)
posted by fairmettle at 9:18 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]

I'm always troubled by the fact that every animal I've known as a pet has such an individual personality, even small ones like rats and mice. So unless I believe that I have somehow imbued them with personality by my proximity or attention (I know a woman who believes this), that surely means that every single bird, rat, mouse, etc, out there is an unique and individual personality.

Which isn't the way small wild animals are usually represented. Especially those that bother us.

And now I'm troubled by the fact that I attach such importance to individuality. Why should that be so important?

I've been watching the bumblebees in my garden. They are charming. They have the habit of taking hold of the twig they are perching on with their jaws, and then letting go with all 6 feet. It looks so cartoonish.
posted by Zumbador at 9:24 PM on August 3 [7 favorites]

Interesting. One implication, if bumblebees have some form of subjective experience: We probably need to take care to anesthetize them before painful experiments, unless we are specifically studying their response to aversive stimuli.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 5:07 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]

In the scientific literature, insects can only be as smart as the best experiment we can design to ask how smart they are. Chittka has been on a tear designing better and better experiments for the last decade or so. There’s a lot going on in the brains of these little animals, and we’re approaching a consensus that they do have some sense of self that allows them to identify problems and visualize alternative solutions, then pick the one they think will work best.
posted by Buckt at 7:36 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

The more I observe my garden and its inhabitants, especially in contrast to humanity, the less impressed I am with our supposed intelligence. The last species to turn the lights out, having overseen by choice the destruction of so many precious resources and unknown genetic treasures, is unlikely to be reckoned all that intelligent after a final accounting.
posted by thoroughburro at 8:20 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I will read the articles when I get off work (I'm in a teleconference atm). I hope for more Hymenoptera posts ("So make one", they said).

Years ago I read Bernd Heinrich's Bumblebee Economics and really enjoyed it (I am a nerd). In short: bees are machines for turning pollen into more bees. How they regulate their temperature is interesting. It involves their wing beat rate but now I've forgotten whether the airflow is cooling or the muscle action generates heat; I suspect the latter, and at the cost of fuel (nectar/honey).

I've read several Heinrich books and they are fascinating.
posted by neuron at 8:44 AM on August 4

Lots of things have emotions without sentience or consciousness.

Someone please clear up this terminology for me. This seems to be a fairly standard dictionary definition (from Wikipedia):
Sentience is the capacity to experience feelings and sensations. The word was first coined by philosophers in the 1630s for the concept of an ability to feel, derived from Latin sentientem (a feeling), to distinguish it from the ability to think (reason).
By this standard, all animals and basically everything that's alive (and maybe even some nonliving things) qualifies as "sentient". It seems pretty clear to me that "sapience" would be a more appropriate term for the intelligence of self-awareness.


Personally my feeling is that we have little business gatekeeping the intelligence of other organisms. We don't actually understand our own consciousness and we seem to suffer from a remarkable hubris about our particular primate cleverness being the definitive form of "higher consciousness". Considering we seem to be actively engaged in destroying the life-sustaining function of our physical environment, and that we can't even agree on the meanings of the most basic terminology in this context, this framework appears to suffer from significant overreach.
posted by viborg at 9:37 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

I've been playing with this idea as I re-learn biology and gardening. The stuff we learn about in chemistry and physics classes are all broadly deterministic systems; there is a level of complexity where determinism breaks down, where chaos theory had to be developed, because these deterministic systems produce results that look random, but they are still in theory deterministic.

But with living things, I read a quote from a biologist about how information ought to be added to the definition of life. All the way down to the smallest bacteria, every living thing has things that it needs to find (food) and other things that are dangerous to it, and they do things. A rock falling towards the sun can't do anything to change its fate, but a bacteria wiggling its flagella can. There is something about a bacteria that takes in information, and does action that is subject to the laws of physics but not predicted by them.

In my garden, my plants don't think, they don't have emotions, but they have senses. They lean, they grow, they push, they grab. They build their body in certain shapes and directions. Every part of their body can sense light and temperature and moisture. I don't think they know me, but they do know something.

In a practical material sense, I'm incredibly cautious about projecting and humanizing non-human creatures ... but at the same time, it's become impossible for me to think of plants as objects or things. And in a spiritual or religious cosmology sense I'm pretty fully convinced of the consciousness of non-human creatures.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:51 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

Does this mean that when I say, "HELLO, BEES!", with all the love in my heart, they might KNOW?????
posted by The Adventure Begins at 8:58 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]

Does this mean that when I say, "HELLO, BEES!", with all the love in my heart, they might KNOW?????

Yes, say it is so!
(username & Jester quote...this must be a CR reference?!?!?)
posted by Zumbador at 9:34 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

The more I observe my garden and its inhabitants, especially in contrast to humanity, the less impressed I am with our supposed intelligence.

The more I observe my garden and its inhabitants, especially in contrast to humanity, the more grateful I am that hummingbirds can't make tools or social bonds. Otherwise, we would have been goners from the evolutionary git go. Talk about mass extinction...
posted by y2karl at 12:33 PM on August 5

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