Bees have feelings and can experience optimism
A new study finds that bees can have positive feelings.
Trees form bonds like old married couples, octopuses are wildly smart, horses can talk to people and even lowly slime mold can solve intricate mazes. Is it any wonder that researchers have discovered that bees can feel things?
So maybe bees don’t get warm and fuzzy when watching a romantic comedy or sad when they see a lost puppy, but based on the work of scientists from Queen Mary University of London, they can indeed experience something akin to a rush of optimism.
"We can’t say they experience life in the same way that we do," Clint J. Perry, cognitive neuroethologist at Queen Mary University, told Popular Science. "But on a basic level, there’s no reason to believe they can’t feel something. It does feel like something to be a bee or an ant or what-have-you."
Along with researchers Luigi Baciadonna and Lars Chittka, Perry wanted to investigate whether or not bees could feel positive emotions. Given that bees can neither talk nor smile, they devised an experiment to test the emotional state of the subjects. They created an environment that contained a blue bee-sized door with sweetened water and a green one with plain water – and recorded how long it took the bees to enter a door. The researchers then rewarded half of the bees with a treat of more sweetened water and offered a blue-green option … a mystery door! (Bonus fact: Bees can are good at seeing shades of blue or green.) The bees who were given an extra shot of sugar dashed to the blue-green door, the others not so much. As Samantha Cole writes in Popular Science:
The sweet bees were quicker to "optimistically" fly into this strange new door and find out if more sugar waited inside. They weren't flying faster thanks to the buzz – they measured speed and found no difference between the two groups – but they were making a judgment call more quickly and acting on it. Bumblebees exhibit "emotion–like states" that change their behavior. And because they were able to nix the bees' good vibes with a topical dose of the dopamine-killer fluphenazine, and return to the original results, they could conclude that the sugar was giving them a high similar to how we'd feel good wrist-deep in a pint of Ben & Jerry's.
The researches also simulated a spider attack on the bees, which would make some humans I know beg for mercy. Nonetheless, the bees who had the extra sugar flew to a feeder four times faster, showing that they were more easily able to recover from the scare.
“Although these experiments show that bees are doing a lot of cognitive work in the brain the size of a sesame seed, the researchers are careful with their terminology around what emotions, feelings, and free will mean when it comes to insects,” writes Cole. And for sure, it’s hard to say what an insect’s emotional life is like; but they do fulfill the same criteria that's used to study expression in infants and nonverbal mammals, she notes.
"That feeling inside is what’s so close to us and makes emotion present in our lives? Emotions are a lot more than that," Perry says.
How and what they feel we may never know. They are so different from us, I’m not sure we could even think of ways to evaluate it on their terms. One thing seems sure though, they are more than little automatons just bent on survival.
"We’re understanding that insects aren’t these behaviorally rigid machines," Perry says. "They’re much more complex than we have often thought."