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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Buzz on Bees
See Inside December 2008/January 2009

Exploring Consciousness through the Study of Bees

Bees display a remarkable range of talents—abilities that in a mammal such as a dog we would associate with consciousness

Although bees can’t be expected to push levers, they can be trained to take either the left or the right exit inside a cylinder modified for the DMTS test. A color disk serves as a cue at the entrance of the maze, so that the bee sees it before entering. Once within the maze, the bee has to choose the arm displaying the color that matches (DMTS) or differs from (DNMTS) the color at the entrance. Bees perform both tasks well. They even generalize to a situation they have never previously encountered. That is, once they’ve been trained with colors, they “get it” and can now follow a trail of vertical stripes if a disk with vertical gratings is left at the entrance of the maze. These experiments tell us that bees have learned an abstract relation (sameness in DMTS, difference in DNMTS) irrespective of the physical nature of the stimuli. The generalization to novel stimuli can even occur from odors to colors.

Insect Intelligence
Although these experiments do not tell us that bees are conscious, they caution us that we have no principled reason at this point to reject this assertion. Bees are highly adaptive and sophisticated creatures with a bit fewer than one million neurons, which are interconnected in ways that are beyond our current understanding, jammed into less than one cubic millimeter of brain tissue. The neural density in the bee’s brain is about 10 times higher than that in a mammalian ce­rebral cortex, which most of us take to be the pinnacle of evolu­tion on this planet. In humans, widespread loss of cerebral cortex, as in the vegetative patient Terri Schiavo, leads to an irreversible loss of con­scious­ness. That is not to say that a cerebral cortex is necessary for consciousness in creatures with a different evolutionary heritage.

Bees live in highly stratified yet flexible social organizations with group decision-making skills that rival academic, corporate or government committees in efficiency. In spring, when bees swarm, they choose a new hive that needs to satisfy many demands within a couple of days (consider that the next time you go house hunting). They communicate information about the location and quality of food sources using the waggle dance. Bees can fly several kilometers and return to their hive, a remarkable navigational performance. Their brains seem to have incorporated a map of their environment. And a scent blown into the hive can trigger a return to the site where the bee previously encountered this odor. This type of associative memory was famously described by French novelist Marcel Proust in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Given all of this ability, why does almost everybody instinctively reject the idea that bees or other insects might be conscious? The trouble is that bees are so different from us and our ilk that our insights fail us. But just because they are small and live in colonies does not mean that they can’t have subjective states, that they can’t smell the fragrance of the golden nectar or experience the warm rays of the sun or maybe even have a primitive sense of self. I am not a mystic. I am not arguing for pan-psychism, for the notion that anything is conscious. Nor am I assuming that bees can reason or can reflect on their fate as animated cartoon bees.

What this dilemma highlights is that there is no accepted theory of consciousness, no principled theory that would tell us which systems, organic or artificial, are conscious and why. In the absence of such a theory, we must at the very least remain agnostic about consciousness in these creatures. So the next time a bee hovers above your breakfast toast, attracted by the sweet jam, gently shoo her away. For she might be a fellow sentient being, experiencing her brief interlude in the light, shoehorned between this moment and eternity.

Note: This article was originally published with the title, "What Is It Like To Be a Bee?".

This article was originally published with the title "Consciousness Redux: What Is It Like to Be a Bee?."

(Further Reading)

  • The Concepts of “Sameness” and “Difference” in an Insect. Martin Giurfa, Shaowu Zhang, Arnim Jenett, Randolf Menzel and Mandyam V. Srinivasan in Nature, Vol. 410, pages 930–933; April 19, 2001.
  • Three-Dimensional Average-Shape Atlas of the Honeybee Brain and Its Applications. Robert Brandt et al. in Journal of Comparative Neurology, Vol. 492, No. 1, pages 1–19; November 7, 2005.
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