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Do bees remember landmarks? A new book says bees don't operate under a 'hive mind' and are pretty intelligent

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A new book, "The Mind of A Bee," says bees are sentient creatures that do not operate with a "hive mind." 

As a child, I regarded bees as a threat, fearing their stings. As an adult gardener, I’ve moved on to value and admire bees because of the role they play as pollinators, both of food crops and of flowering plants in general. Just recently, my attitude toward these insects evolved again.

A conversation with Lars Chittka, Ph.D., of Queen Mary University of London and the author of a fascinating new book “The Mind of a Bee,” left me intrigued with the psychological profile of these small but complex creatures.

The common attitude toward bees (one I shared until that conversation) is suggested by the popular expression “hive mind,” a disparaging way of describing a kind of group consciousness that does not permit any individual thinking. In fact, of the estimated 3,600 species of bees native to North America, 90 percent are “solitary.” That is, they live and raise their young alone, not as part of a hive. Even the more familiar “social” bee species, however, such as the honey bee (which was introduced to America from Europe) and our native bumblebees, which also live in colonies, are not robotic cogs in some biological machine, driven entirely by instinct as we have too often supposed.

Rather, Chittka, explains, bees are very active learners, basing their behavior not only on their own experiences but also on what they observe in the behavior of other bees, even bees of different species. And they learn fast — much faster than humans. They have to, for the lifespan or an individual bee is typically short. Worker honey bees, for example, may only live some six to seven weeks, and during that interval they must master not only tasks around the hive such as helping to construct the combs and packing the cells with honey, but also, if they survive to mature into field bees, they must learn how to navigate miles-long trips outside the hive. This involves not only learning local landmarks so that 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 hourly as flowers move into and out of bloom), and how to avoid predators such as the crab spiders that lurk inside flowers waiting to devour bee visitors. Given all these challenges, it’s not surprising that, as Chittka pointed out, 10 percent of all bumblebees never return from their first foraging flight.

Bees learn to coordinate several different means of navigation, cross-checking the information they derive from the position of the sun with readings of the earth’s magnetic field and their memories of landmarks. According to Chittka, they also have the ability to process their memories of the surrounding landscape so that they visit a series of nectar and pollen sources in the most efficient sequence, plotting a route as skillfully as any traveling salesman. Chittka also found that bees have a rudimentary ability to count, navigating in part by the number of landmarks they passed during flight, and they can use tools. In one experiment, bumblebees learned to roll a ball to the center of a platform to earn a food reward.

Nor are bees simply interchangeable computers. Chittka’s studies of individual specimens found that some bees embraced change and learning while others were more conservative. Though loath to label this as “personality” — bees are not persons — he did cite this as evidence of their psychological complexity.

Chittka ends “The Mind of a Bee” with a plea for a new attitude toward these insects. Yes, he says, they are useful to us as pollinators, and given that many species of bees are declining in numbers, that is essential to keep in mind. They are also, however, more than just a means to a bigger harvest and ecological health. They have long since been proven to be remarkably sophisticated, thinking creatures. Increasingly, evidence is emerging that suggests that bees are sentient, that they have an ability to experience suffering and pleasure.

“From that angle, they do deserve some respect for their strange but nonetheless most likely quite sophisticated minds.”

We are not, in other words, the only intelligence in the garden.

To listen to the rest of my conversation with Chittka and learn more about his book, “The Mind of a Bee,” log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at berkshirebotanical.org.

Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.

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