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  • Writer's pictureDave Black

What do we Know About What Bees Know?

Science writer Dave Black reads the new beekeeping best-seller ‘The Mind of a Bee’, by Lars Chittka and ponders insect minds, cognition and consciousness.

In these public times some of our more 'woke' scientists have taken to describing honeybees and other invertebrates as having personality, individuality even; sometimes emotional, sometimes empathetic animals with their own culture and traditions. Surprising skills, like numeracy, and language emerge from suspiciously romantic claims. Joking aside, it's hard to imagine a more value-laden, philosophically fraught topic than animal cognition. It has always been so, from Darwin to Descartes and Democritus.

The honeybee colony is undoubtably adaptive in its ability to interact with the world around it, but how cognitive are its individual members?

Cognition is a term referring to the activity involved in acquiring knowledge and working out how to use it. There is a physical and chemical apparatus associated with a collection of processes we might think about that gain and transform information. We prioritise, remember, forget, imagine, judge, and problem-solve, with everything we perceive about ourselves and the world around us.

Part of what makes studying animal minds difficult is expanding the enquiry into a sensory world which we can scarcely imagine, much less one we can measure or test. A single human context becomes a myriad of animal contexts. The other part of what makes it difficult is our beliefs about the human-animal distinction and the extent of continuity between the minds of humans and other animals. Are we highly evolved animals, merely an extension of what went before, or something quite different? Something that the discredited cognitive psychologist Marc Hauser called ‘Singularly Smart’.[1], [2]

So, we are curious about bees and other animals, but what also makes animal cognition interesting and important lies in its challenge to the methods, assumptions, and values in science itself. It forces us to think about the meaning of culture, language, knowledge, mind, and consciousness, and it makes us reconsider classic questions about human nature and our place among all other organisms[3]. What is it to be ‘emotional’, to be ‘conscious’, or ‘sentient’?

Chittka’s Latest Work

Dr Lars Chittka isn't some Johnny-come-lately when it comes to apicultural study. His is a pretty conventional scholarly lineage tracing back through icons, Randolf Menzel (his tutor), Martin Lindauer (Menzel’s tutor), to Karl von Frish (Lindauer’s tutor), all of whom had begun to wonder about the boundaries of honeybee cognition. His new book, ‘The Mind of a Bee[4], published on July 19, and released in several formats, is creating quite a buzz among academics and apprentices alike.

Dr Lars Chittka's latest works, The Mind of a Bee, introduces some important topics to the debate of honeybee consciousness, which media all around the World have picked up on.

The first few chapters take us through what has been discovered so far about the way bees perceive the world, a ‘levelling up’ for readers that haven’t been following the research or from other disciplines. Each chapter has additional explanatory notes collated at the end of the book, diversions and clarifications that would otherwise clutter a fluid and easy text. Chittka is a capable user of modern media and over recent years has amassed a modest catalogue of material, presented on YouTube too, so the book has come to the attention of a somewhat incredulous public. It’s still worth a place in your library.

In it he explores the sensory world of bees, their learning about space, how they learn about flowers, and what they learn about each other, before we get to neurology and the brain. The account is full of anecdote and histories of the work, carefully leading the reader through the argument that our preconceptions should change, that “we must at least allow the possibility” that the mind of the bee is closer to our own than we could have guessed. That there is credible evidence and evolutionary logic suggesting that something like consciousness, emotion, introspection or intent should be considered. That sheer survival, perhaps, made it all inevitable.

Reality. To each, his own…

We have always understood that every individual’s experience was conditional on limited and imperfect senses. The 19th century German biologist Jakob von Uexküll proposed a concept he called umwelt [5] to name the small subset of the greater ‘reality’ any animal can experience; each species ‘constructs’ and lives within its own ‘lifeworld’.

For beekeepers we think of honeybee’s vision, skewed away from our ‘red’ towards ultraviolet as one aspect of their own umwelt distinct from ours, or maybe their meld of touch, smell, and taste. We try to imagine an AFB detector dog’s umwelt filled with scents we will never know. To reach beyond our own umwelt requires not just imagination but the intellectual humility to appreciate the unseen, and it’s the only way of knowing what another being may be conscious of.

Are insects conscious?

Some, like Hauser, think the gap between the cognitive capability of animals and that of humans isn’t one of degrees along a continuum, but a yawning chasm. Most scientists don’t see it that way and think Darwin’s thesis of cognitive continuity across species applies, in other words “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” [6]

Chittka, remains cautious. He writes:

There has never been formal proof of consciousness in any animal, and in the book I have not supplied a formal proof for bees, either. Critical readers might counter that every single psychological phenomenon, every intelligent behaviour described in this book could somehow be replicated …could in theory be accomplished without any form of conscious awareness. They would be right.”

The last chapter of the book turns to what difference it would make if there is a consensus that bees are sentient creatures, and in Chittka’s view “we are currently as confident of these phenomena [pain, emotional states, consciousness] in bees as we are in the charismatic mammals that are the classic mascots of conservation campaigns… we should err on the side of caution and treat bees with the same respect as other animals in which we accept the possibility of subjective experience.”

While Chittka suggests “…we owe bees”, arguably we owe it to ourselves to treat other creatures ‘humanely’ because to do otherwise undermines the significance of the virtue itself.[7] That is, if we are to retain a consistent ethical position our moral standards cannot shift to suit the circumstances. Chittka believes bees are sufficiently sentient to deserve moral equality, but it’s important to say, biology aside, philosophically it remains a difficult issue.[8]

Dave Black is a commercial-beekeeper-turned-hobbyist, now working in the kiwifruit industry. He is a regular science writer providing commentary on “what the books don't tell you” via his Substack Beyond Bee Books, to which you can subscribe here.


[1] Marc Hauser, Origins of the Mind, Scientific American, Sept 2009. [2] [3] Andrews, Kristin and Susana Monsó, "Animal Cognition", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [4] Chittka, Lars, The Mind of a Bee. Princeton University Press, July 2022, ISBN 978- 0-691-18047-2 [5] Thomas A. Sebeok’s translation of the work of Jakob von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1909) [6] Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, London: J Murray. Second edition 1874. [7] See: Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals, Christine M. Korsgaard. Delivered as the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan, February 6, 2004. [8] For a useful summary of the issues, see Scott D Wilson, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Animals and Ethics.


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