How intelligent are various life forms compared to humans? Studies over the years have revealed a surprising depth of intelligence in several life forms and have questioned the unipolar definitions of intelligence, with Homo sapiens placed at the top. Elephants, it was found, can remember and revere their deceased, rats were trained to detect explosives in war zones, and dolphins are capable of mimicking human names.
In a recent addition to research on animal intelligence and consciousness, Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at Queen Mary University of London, finds in his latest book – The Mind of the Bee — that bees possess not only a remarkable level of cognitive intelligence, but also a high degree sentience or “consciousness”, which make them thinking and feeling beings.
What is animal intelligence and consciousness?
Consciousness has been understood as a concept different from ordinary brain-intelligence (which commonly is known to include the cognitive ability of thinking and reasoning). It includes the ability to be “sentient” and experience feelings and emotions. The ambit and nuance of “consciousness”, especially human consciousness, has been the subject matter of debate in philosophy and neuroscience. It is thought to encapsulate a sophistical level of self-awareness and imagination — feelings and emotions that allow us to perceive ourselves, while simultaneously interacting with the world around us.
The nature of animal consciousness is far more difficult to assess as humans are fundamentally unable to understand the minds of animals and live the world through their eyes. However, through decades of research — such as by zoologist Donald Griffin (The Question of Animal Awareness, 1976) — it is now accepted that animals too possess some form of consciousness. In 2012, a group of neuroscientists signed the ‘Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’, which affirmed evidence of consciousness within the animal kingdom and the ability of several species to “feel” and acutely perceive their sensations.
What did we previously know about the cognitive abilities of bees?
Among the earliest explorations into the intelligence of bees was that by the Austrian behavioural biologist Karl von Frisch, Nobel winner for medicine in 1973, who found worker honey bees use a kind of “waggle dance” for communicating with each other.
Subsequent research has confirmed that bees are extremely intelligent. In 2014, Hamida B Mirwan and Peter G Kevan showed that bees could learn to solve complex puzzles to access their reward – sugar. Research in 2017 by a group from Queen Mary University, London (of which Chittka was a part) concluded that bees could learn to solve a task through a rewards system and could also teach other bees to perform the same task, but while incorporating important improvements in the task. Bees have also been found to be able to form democracies where a subset can communicate their decisions to a group of over 10,000. These findings debunked the idea that creatures with smaller brains were less intelligent. They showed bees were capable of social learning and collective wisdom, just as humans can transfer knowledge and learn from each other.
What does the new book find?
Expanding on his previous work, Chittka goes beyond basic intelligence to explore consciousness and sentience in bees. He concludes that bees have a mind of their own, and have distinct personalities. They are even able to distinctly identify the faces of humans.
One experiment showed bees likely felt emotions like fear and anxiety and consequently changed their demeanour, when exposed to past locations of trauma and danger – such as a flower on which they were once attacked by a spider. Chittka is convinced that sophistication in cognition in bees goes hand in hand with their ability to be sentient and experience “emotional-states”.
What does this mean for our interaction with bees?
Chittka argues that while protecting bees has great ecological and commercial significance, there are other ethical reasons why humanity must ensure their survival. Their sentience and ability to deeply “feel” ought to create an empathetic and moral obligation for humans. Human empathy and the social norm against causing harm are premised on our ethical obligation to not do to others, what we may consider painful when done to us. The Mind of a Bee makes a strong case to add sentient bees to the list of beneficiaries of human kindness and compassion.