As a kid, I used to think of bees as a threat for fear of being bitten. As an adult gardener, I have continued to value and admire bees because of their role in polluting both food crops and flowering plants in general. Recently, my attitude towards these insects has evolved again.
Conversations with Lars Chittka, PhD, Queen Mary University of London and author of the fascinating new book “The Mind of a Bee” intrigued me with the psychological profile of these small but complex animals.
The general attitude towards bees (the one I shared up to that conversation) is guided by the popular expression “mind”, which is an inappropriate way of describing the type of group consciousness that does not allow for thinking. Of any individual. In fact, of the approximately 3,600 species of bees native to North America, 90 percent are “solitary.” That is, they live and raise offspring alone, not part of the nest. However, even the more familiar “social” bee species, such as the honey bee (introduced to the Americas from Europe) and our native bees that live in colonies, are not robotic bees. In some biological machines driven by instinct. As we have often guessed.
Instead, Chittka explains that bees are the most active learners based on their behavior, not only on their own experience, but also on what they observe on the behavior of other bees, even bees. Of different types. And they learn faster – faster than humans. They must be for life, or each bee is usually short. Worker bees, for example, can live only six to seven weeks, during which time they have to work around the hive, not only helping to build combs and packing cells with honey, but also if they survive. Mature into the field bees, they have to learn how to navigate miles away from the hive. This includes not only learning local landmarks so they can find their way back to the colony, but also how to identify and remember the best sources of pollen and nectar (information that changes every hour when Flowers move in and out of the flower) and how to avoid predators such as spiders, crabs hiding inside the flower waiting to swallow the bee visitors. Given all these challenges, it is not surprising, as Chittka points out, that 10 percent of all bumblebees never return from their first flight.
Bees learn to adapt to many different means of navigation by examining the information they receive from the position of the sun with reading the earth’s magnetic field and remembering its markings. According to Chittka, they also have the ability to refine their memories of the surrounding landscape, so they visit a series of nectar and pollen sequences in the most efficient sequence, skillfully paving the way like all travel vendors. Chittka also found that bees have the ability to initially count, in part, by the number of landmarks they pass through during flight, and that they can use the device. In one experiment, bees learned to roll a ball to the center of the platform to get a food prize.
Bees are also not computers that can change. Chittka’s study of each specimen found that some bees accept mutation and learning, while others are conservative. Despite the aversion to labeling this as a “personality” – bees are not human – he cites this as evidence of their psychological complexity.
Chittka ends the “bee concept” with a plea for a new attitude towards these insects. Yes, he says, they are useful for us as pollinators and because so many bee species are declining, it is important to remember. However, they are also more than a means for greater harvesting and ecological health. They have long been portrayed as intelligent creatures. Increasingly, evidence is emerging that bees are so emotional that they are capable of experiencing suffering and pleasure.
“From that angle, they deserve some respect for their strangeness, but most likely, however, are complex ideas.”
On the other hand, we are not the only smart people in the garden.
To listen to the rest of my conversation with Chittka and find out more about his book “The Mind of a Bee,” visit Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at berkshirebotanical.org.