Inside the mind of a bee — do they think? Are they conscious?

Scott Alexander, a psychologist who blogs at Astral Codex Ten, writes about a book that dives into the question of whether bees can think or not:

“Lars Chittka, who wrote The Mind of a Bee, got thinking. He and his lab decided to build fake robotic crab spiders, and had them really robotically attack bumble bees when they visited flowers. Not only did the bees have a bad time, their behavioural patterns totally changed. They began to approach the flowers differently. They began inspecting flowers via quick scanning flights before landing on them, and would occasionally reject flowers even if there was no crab spider present. They seemed more nervous. If you want to see if humans are optimistic or pessimistic, you point at a glass of water that is halfway filled and ask them to describe it. Similarly, you can do the glass half-full versus half-empty test on bees, where you give them an ambiguous stimulus – it might be sucrose, which bees love, or it might be quinine, which they hate – and see if they want it. 

If they want it, they’re likely a happy-go-lucky bee with nothing on their mind. If you simulate the bee being attacked by a predator right before this test, they are much less likely to fly to the solution and much more likely to fly into the container labelled ‘Therabee’. Does that mean bees feel emotions? If they feel emotions, would that mean bees have conscious states? Or are these all just instinctive responses? Bees exist in that great hinterland of consciousness – the valley where we throw all manner of creatures and living beings whose experiences we remain fundamentally uncertain about. Some readers will likely enter the book believing that bees do not have conscious experiences, and Lars Chittka does a good job disabusing these people of their certainty in this belief, if not the belief altogether.”

There’s a lot more to it than this small sample, and it’s all fascinating — why bees build hexagonal honeycombs (even in space with zero gravity), why they do the waggle dance to deliver information about the angle of the sun even though it doesn’t improve their ability to gather nectar, and much more.

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