The Fascinating Case For Bees’ Feelings

Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchman makes the case that bees aren’t just smart, but sentient, too.

The following is an excerpt from What A Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees by Stephen Buchmann

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What A Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees


The fuzzy brown bee awakens inside a dark underground burrow.

She’s completed her nest, a den of open urn-shaped brood cells that will become the precious nurseries for her grub like larvae. She is a single mom with a family to feed. Our bee gets no assistance from her long-dead mate or from her sisters or other relatives. She isn’t part of a social collective, nor does she live within a compact wooden hive bursting with thousands of other bees. Her life is a brief, solitary existence, a few intense weeks spent foraging at flower patches, gathering food and provisions that will ensure her young will mature. Each morning, she flies from her earthen nest to locate distant flowers, which are like one-stop bee supermarkets. Bees need this hid-den pollen and nectar, the food rewards that flowers offer in return for pollination services.

It’s a difficult and busy life. Her brain, though no larger than a poppy seed, can handle the complex thoughts and challenging celestial and landmark navigation that daily foraging requires. Every trip to a flower is a new learning experience, and she easily memorizes the flowers’ locations, colors, scents, and rewards. The bee navigates and actively chooses the kinds of flowers she visits, making use of her past experiences and memories. She thinks, makes quick decisions, and learns for herself from her complex and ever-changing interactions with the environment.

On this typical morning, the mother bee scrambles up from the bot-tom of her deep nest to the soil surface, aided by little “kneepads” on all six legs. She pauses just below the surface, not daring to show even the tip of one antenna. There are many potential dangers outside the safety of her nest. There may be hungry wolf spiders, lizards, birds, or ferocious predatory insects such as robber flies nearby. Other insects, including parasitic bee flies, velvet ants (a kind of wasp), and parasitic blister beetles, are potent natural enemies waiting to enter a bee’s nest, to lay their own eggs while the owner is away.

She waits several minutes until the rays of the bright morning sun strike her face and warm her. Our female is about to fly. She inches for-ward and tests the air, both antennae waving frantically like stout fishing rods. Thousands of finely tuned microscopic sensory cells are embedded within each of the ten flexible segments (flagellomeres) of her antennae.Everything seems fine. Her sensory cells and the two mushroom body regions (areas that process complex information) within her brain signal an all clear. She doesn’t see or smell any nearby predator or parasite making a stealthy approach toward her burrow.

The female bee briefly shivers the powerful flight muscles within her thorax to warm up. Ready, she launches herself skyward and hovers in midair. Performing an aerial pirouette, she flies left, then back to the center, and then to the right of her nest. She repeats these back-and-forth, ever-wider zigzags, all while facing her nest and flying higher with each pass. In fact, she is memorizing the locations of the physical landmarks around her nest. These could be small stones, live or dead plants, bits of wood, or similar debris. She quickly creates a mental map of her home terrain. In less than a minute, she has memorized all the visual imagery, the spatial geometry, and the smells of her immediate surroundings. All sorts of solitary and social bees perform this instinctive behavior when leaving their nests, forming detailed mental maps of their homesite and nearby landmarks.

Soon, our female turns and flies away from her nest at about 24kilometers per hour (15 miles per hour) in search of flowers. Fragrant blooms will provide her with the crucial pollen and nectar resources she needs to survive and provision her underground nursery. While she is foraging, the bee’s compound eyes detect and analyze the plane of polarization of sunlight spreading across the sky, even if the sun is partially hidden behind clouds. She knows the time of day by observing the relative position of the sun as it moves across the sky. This is the so-called sun compass. It is used by bees, ants, and wasps to keep time and navigate within complex spatial environments while walking or flying to and from their nests.

Once our mother bee locates a promising flower—perhaps one she remembers from previous visits—she probes it for nectar, accidentally brushing against the flower’s plump anthers. She is dusted with gritty microscopic pollen, which contains large amounts of nutritious proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. And, like the blades of a Swiss Army knife, her special rake-like leg combs collect pollen from her body to trans-port home. She packs thousands of the powdery pollen grains onto the branched hairs of her hind legs. Once gathered there, they look like fluffy little orange saddlebags.

Now laden with pollen safely stored on her hind legs, and nectar inside her nectar stomach (the crop), she flies home using celestial cues including the polarization of sunlight and the sun’s position, along with her flight and wind speed. Her flying skills are all performed with a “navigational computer” inside her brain honed by evolution during millions of generations of ancestral bees before her. Putting on the air brakes at the last second, she searches for those previously memorized landmark cues, the bee signposts like colored airport runway lights guiding her safely back home. It’s quite an accomplishment for a bee only one centimeter (about one-half inch) long to make such long flights to distant fields of flowers.

Back inside her nest, the bee mixes the sweet nectar and pollen using her legs and mouthparts and then shapes a moist pea-size ball of “bee bread.” Turning away, she lays an egg from the tip of her abdomen, attaching the sausage like translucent white egg to the food ball. The bee’s egg is smaller than a slender white rice grain. It won’t hatch into a tiny, slender larva for another three days. The pollen ball contains all the meals in one that the mother bee provides for each developing larva. 

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In fact, this is all the food she will provide to each offspring, everything they will require to grow from the egg into an adult bee.
Her work finished, the mother bee will soon die, never seeing or interacting with any of her offspring. Her progeny will be left to survive and defend themselves against destructive fungi, pathogenic microbes, predators, parasites, and the weather. The fat grubs will grow quickly and then transform into pupae. A few lucky grubs will emerge from their underground cells as healthy adults the following spring. These next-generation females will mate, forage, dig and provision nests, then ultimately die, linking endless bee generations that have been repeated over millions of years.

The belowground nest of a typical solitary ground-nesting bee (e.g., Melissodes). Off the main tunnel are side branches leading to larval cells. These brood cells contain pollen-plus-nectar, the food provision, upon which a single egg is laid. The bee larvae develop through four or five molts and eventually pupate. The next generation of bees typically remain underground until they emerge as adults the following spring.

The bee’s life I’ve just described is not unique. In fact, solitary ground or twig-nesting bees are the rule, not the exception. Honey-
making, or social, bees in huge colonies are rare. Digging a nest and foraging at flowers for food are just two of the many behaviors that make bees incredibly fascinating creatures, like alien life-forms right here on planet Earth.

But one must wonder, what do bees and humans share in terms of behaviors, anxiety, and self-awareness? We can still see Aristotle’s lasting influence in some recent writing claiming that humans are unique among animals—that only we can think or reason, make and use tools, form abstract ideas, communicate with language, have self-awareness, dream, grieve lost family members, or contemplate our own mortality. Fortunately, these claims are being overturned as animal behaviorists, ethologists, and comparative psychologists expand their knowledge of the nonhuman world. Today, biologists understand that humans are not completely different from other animals. Especially in relation to cognition, sentience, and learning, we are enmeshed within a broad animal continuum, not better than or somehow set apart from the rest of the animate world.

In the pages that follow, we will find out about the many behaviors, both inborn and learned, that make bees an endlessly intriguing part of this animal continuum. At the same time, we will find out how the mere one million nerve cells in a bee’s brain respond to the sensory input of their world, how they learn, remember, and make decisions.

From What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees by Stephen Buchmann. Copyright © 2023 Stephen Buchmann. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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