Bees Have Feelings, Too

17:20 minutes

a close up of a honeybee
A honey bee gets a close up. Credit: Insects Unlocked/University of Texas at Austin

Few pollinators have the charisma of bees, so much so that the phrase “save the bees” has become a calling card for those who consider themselves ecologically-conscious. There are more than 21,000 species of bees, ranging from the very recognizable bumblebees to the vibrant blue and green Augochloropsis metallica.

Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann has studied bees for nearly fifty years, learning about everything from their natural behaviors to how they respond to puzzles. All of this has led him to a fascinating conclusion: bees are sentient, and they have feelings. 

Stephen joins Ira from Tucson, Arizona to talk about his new book, What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees. Read an excerpt from the book here.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Stephen Buchmann

Stephen Buchmann is the author of What a Bee Knows. He’s based in Tucson, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. For the rest of the hour, we’re going to talk about some of our favorite flying spring critters, bees and butterflies, because it’s that time of spring where flowers are blooming and the butterflies and bees are out and about. And they have powers and abilities far beyond what you may imagine. And since, according to the UN tomorrow is world bee day, what better way to celebrate than to create a buzz about these potent pollinators.

My next guest knows all about what most of us don’t know about– what makes bee so great. His book, What a Bee Knows, explores the brains, brawn, and bombastic nature of these creatures and what we can do to protect them, Stephen Buchmann, pollination ecologist and author of What a Bee Knows. He’s based in Tucson, Arizona. Welcome back to Science Friday.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Hi, Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Here we go. It’s been almost 20 years. You were on our show back in 2005, and I got to ask you, has the general public’s attitude toward bees changed anything for the better since then?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Well, yeah. The public has certainly caught on to bee declines. We’ve actually had one bee, Franklin’s bumblebee from the Pacific Northwest, a bumblebee with the smallest range of any bumblebee in the world, probably go extinct. And sad as that is, we have four or five other species, including the rusty patched bumblebee, bombus affinis, that are also declining as well, perhaps due to some foreign interlopers. We call this pathogen spillover, so we could have had some US bumblebee queens that were collected, brought to European insectaries, comingled with their bees, and brought back with some little microbial hitchhikers. So we have some things like that happening.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad that you brought up bumblebees to begin with because, as I understand it, there are 21,000 types of bees worldwide. And I’ve heard that the honey bee is the most studied insect on the planet because they’re social. They can live in boxes that humans can control. But how much of what you’ve learned about what a bee knows is generalizable to the other 20,000 bees, most of which aren’t social?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Right. I’ve studied honeybees, and bumblebees, and social stingless bees in different places around the world, but mostly I like to hang out with the little solitary bees that nest in the ground. I like to call these single moms with families to feed. They don’t get any help. They often don’t get any respect. They get blasted with pesticides.

But all of these bees are fascinating because they have brains that are the size of a poppy seed with about a million neurons. But they’re doing just phenomenal things their problem solvers. They’re likely self aware. They may have a primitive form of consciousness. We’re just really now, in the last decade or so, figuring out what bees are all about in terms of the inner bee.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s what I want to get into some more. Tell me about in detail these things that you just mentioned because you argue in your book that bees are sentient. They have self awareness. They feel pain. They plan for the future. Tell me how we know this.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, well, some of it’s a little tricky, obviously, because, well, let’s consider consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about this for millennia. How do we even know that another person is conscious?

But all kidding aside, people are arguing– scientists are arguing about whether bees feel pain, for example, and I find this a little amazing. When I grab a bee, let’s say, in the lab with a pair of forceps and it gives me an alarm buzz, turns around, and tries to sting me, I think that’s a good affirmation that they don’t like it. They’re feeling something like pain.

Bees also have something called nociceptors sense cells along with other insects. That’s a good indication that they’re feeling noxious stimuli or trying to move away from them, moving out of potential danger. Sentience, we can get a little bit in the weeds on the definition, but I believe that bees are sentient. The first definition of that is that an animal is capable of experiencing pain, and others have expanded on that definition to include the capacity of them to experience sensations and emotions. But other than, perhaps, anxiety, I’m not so sure that I’m willing to go quite that far for bees.

IRA FLATOW: And self awareness?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah. There was an interesting experiment that was done with small, medium, and large bumblebees. Basically, as you know, insects don’t get bigger as adults. It’s all dependent on how much food you ate as a kid.

So the experiment that was done was to train bumblebees to go through a slit to get to some sugar water on the other side. And so here you come as a fat bumblebee, and the fat bees turned sideways to squeeze their way through the little slit and pulled in their legs. So to me, and the other researchers that actually did that experiment, that, to me, indicates that they have keenly aware of their body size, so they were self aware.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. There’s even been research that bees can experience PTSD-like symptoms.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, some experiments by Lars Chittka, a professor in London, he and his students came up with a system, where the bees in a little foraging arena were confronted with fake spiders with these little padded foam claws. And if a bee got too close, the foam spider grabbed the bee and held on to it for two seconds. And later, when those same bees were tested, they wanted no part of that, so they didn’t even get close to the robotic spider.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. Is this something all insects possess? Or is this an anomaly among insects?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Well, we don’t know yet. So far, it’s been mostly researched with fruit flies. So for example, we know that fruit flies have, for example, an ion channel associated with nociception, that noxious stimuli avoidance, called TRPA1, and it’s possible that bees also have that ion channel. But again, we’ve mainly worked with honeybees– they’re sort of a white rat of the insect world– and a little bit with bumblebees. But most of those others in the nearly 21,000 species of bees around the world, we don’t really know much about their behaviors.

IRA FLATOW: Because I understand there’s been research that bees can recognize different human faces, correct?


IRA FLATOW: Do they see you coming in, and coming by, and wave.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Exactly. Well, I think if you’re a bad beekeeper one day and they recognize your face, you don’t want to go there the next time. But yeah, bees– it’s not quite so strange if you think about it. But bees on a foraging day have to go out and recognize, often cases, dozens of flowers by their shape, their colors, their scent. So maybe identifying a human face is pretty simple compared to what they have to do in terms of learning to work different flowers to get at the pollen and nectar rewards.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Speaking of flowers, we’ve all learned in school that, when a bee goes out and finds some flowers, it comes back to the hive– I’m speaking of honeybees. Maybe the other bees do this, the other social bees. They do some sort of dance, and they teach each other things, correct?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Well, it is a little oversimplified, but basically, back to the 1920s, ’30s, and into the ’40s, Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, an Austrian researcher, was one who did most of that work with honeybees. And the waggle dance stuff has been refined, and we now think that there are odors and other things involved and it’s not as purely symbolic as we once thought.

But by and large, it’s pretty remarkable. So the 11 species of honeybees, the scouts go out. They find a productive flower patch. They acquire odors on their bodies. They’ve got a honey crop full of nectar.

They come back. They regurgitate some of the nectar to other bees at the nest. And then they do what is called a round dance if the flowers are close or a waggle dance if they’re farther away. So basically, the bee’s orientation on the comb is pointing either directly toward the flowers or at an angle that is with respect to the orientation of the bee in the sun. So pretty neat.

IRA FLATOW: It is pretty neat.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Other bees don’t really do that. Bumblebees make some little buzzes in the nest. Some stingless bees put down little odor droplets on vegetation to lead by signposts bees out to flowers. But the vast majority of bees in the world have to find flowers on their own, have to navigate to and from them, and then go out again, so pretty amazing navigational abilities that they have.

IRA FLATOW: Do they use ants do? Ants use their sense of smell, correct, to get to leave trails and pathways? Do bees have a sense of smell that they might go back to a patch of flowers by smell? Or is it purely by navigation?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: No, it’s a combination of optical navigation, the sun compass, their fine memory of time. For example, if you put out a reward at a certain time every day, the bees will anticipate that and come back. But it is a mix of that optical navigation and also sense that they can smell for a distance, or as I said, can even be clinging to their body when they get back to their nest.

IRA FLATOW: Right. So bees know how to tell time.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: They do, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: By the sun?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Right, by the position of the sun in the sky and then just probably an internal clock that is pretty accurate. So they know when certain kinds of flowers, maybe their favorites– say they’re opening in the morning. They’ll be back there the next morning, anticipating when they open up.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing. And you said before how tiny a bee’s brain is. How do they get all of this into that tiny little spot?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Of course, it doesn’t it isn’t really divided into hemispheres, and a cerebellum, and all the weird parts that human brains have. But it is comprised of about one million neurons, and there might actually be one billion synaptic connections, so much smaller than, perhaps, 80 to 100 billion neurons in our brains. But they do a lot of amazing things.

There are structures inside the brains called mushroom bodies that look like mushrooms, and they do a lot of complex processing. And it’s likely that memories are consolidated there. We didn’t talk about bees sleeping, but hey–


STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah. Bee’s sleep.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody first that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Steve Buchmann author of What a Bee Knows, based in Tucson. Yes, tell us about sleep.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, well, bees can sleep a lot, six hours at night, maybe 10 hours during the day. And they go through different stages of sleep. First, there is a wakefulness type of sleep when their antennae, the feelers, are going like crazy. And then the final stage of their sleep is a deep sleep when they’re really quiet. They have kind of a rigid posture, and their antennae don’t move. But really, what we think is going on is that bees are consolidating their navigational memories during sleep, so pretty interesting stuff.

IRA FLATOW: I remember, back in the 1960s when there was a debate about running the laboratory rats in a maze versus studying rats in the wild, how much can you learn about learning them– watching them in the maze when you should be studying them in the wild? And I’m thinking about that now about you talk about that the honeybees in our boxes that we keep them, they’re sort of the lab rats of science study. Could we learn a whole lot more from bees by studying the ones that are in the wild?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We can learn a lot, as scientists or naturalists, by watching bees in the wild, although, for some of these studies, we need to bring them into the lab, where we can control some of the different stimuli that they’re responding to.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about what we, in the short time we have left here, what we as individuals can do to make the world a more bee-friendly place.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, the main thing we need to do is to stop blasting them with insecticides. In the United States, I think there are only three states that have banned the neonics, neonicotinoids, which are really nasty systemic insecticides. And they show up in lawn-care products, and they’re also in potted nursery plants that we buy. Many countries in the EU have banned them, and they should be banned here.

And there are other things that are harming bees that we’re just now learning about. I’m working with a group of scientists at Cornell, and the University of California, and other universities, and we found that, while herbicides, which are weed killers, are generally not harmful to adult bees– and this is something that industry will tell you– we find that herbicides, when they’re brought back into the nests of these solitary or social bees, that they are eaten by the larval bees, the bee grubs. And they knock out the helpful bacteria and yeasts that help them. Just like we need probiotic helpful microbes to live a healthy, happy life, bees need those, too.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they need a healthy microbiome just like we do.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Yeah, they do need a healthy microbiome. The simplest thing that you can do if you’re not blasting things with insecticides are to plant a diversity of flowers, especially native wildflowers that are adapted to the local region where you live and so that these are appearing and flowering in most months of the year because some of these especially social bee colonies are long lived. Most of those bees that I talked about that are ground nesting need some bare ground, so if you don’t put down plastic sheeting to keep down weeds or you don’t put in gravel or redwood chips or something like that as a mulch, that’ll help bees a lot, too, because they need that bare ground to nest in.

IRA FLATOW: It’s something good to know for this planting season. I’m going to keep some of my spaces bare. Thank you, Steve. This is fascinating. It’s a great new book.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Thanks so much, Ira. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

IRA FLATOW: Steve Buchmann pollination ecologist and author of What a Bee Knows, a great book. I highly recommend it.

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