The Mind of a Bee
Understanding the minds of alien life- forms is not easy, but if you relish the challenge, you don’t have to travel to outer space to find it. Alien minds are right here, all around you. You won’t necessar-ily find them in large- brained mammals— whose psy chol ogy is sometimes studied for the sole purpose of finding human- ness in slightly modified form. With insects such as bees, there is no such temptation: neither the socie ties of bees nor their individual psy chol ogy are remotely like those of humans (figure 1.1). Indeed, their perceptual world is so distinct from ours, governed by completely diff er ent sense organs, and their lives are ruled by such diff er ent priorities, that they might be accurately regarded as aliens from inner space.
Insect socie ties may look to us like smoothly oiled machines in which the individual plays the part of a mindless cog, but a superficial alien ob-server might come to the same conclusion about a human society. Over the course of this book, it will be my goal to convince you that each indi-vidual bee has a mind— that it has an awareness of the world around it and of its own knowledge, including autobiographical memories; an apprecia-tion of the outcomes of its own actions; and the capacity for basic emo-tions and intelligence— key ingredients of a mind. And these minds are supported by beautifully elaborate brains. As we will see, insect brains are anything but simple. Compared to a human brain with its 86 billion nerve cells, a bee’s brain may have only about a million. But each one of these cells has a finely branched structure that in complexity may resemble a full- grown oak tree. Each nerve cell can make connections with 10,000 other ones— hence there may be more than a billion such connection points in a bee brain— and each of these connections is at least potentially plastic, alterable by individual experience. These elegantly miniaturized brains are much more than input- output devices; they are biological prediction ma-chines, exploring possibilities. And they are spontaneously active in the absence of any stimulation, even during the night.
What It’s Like to Be a Bee
To explore what might be inside the mind of a bee, it is helpful to take a first- person bee perspective, and consider which aspects of the world would matter to you, and how. I invite you to picture what it’s like to be a bee. To start, imagine you have an exoskeleton— like a knight’s armor. However, there isn’t any skin under neath: your muscles are directly attached to the armor. You’re all hard shell, soft core. You also have an inbuilt chemical weapon, designed as an injection needle that can kill any animal your size and be extremely painful to animals a thousand times your size— but using it may be the last thing you do, since it can kill you, too. Now imagine what the world looks like from inside the cockpit of a bee.
You have 300o vision, and your eyes pro cess information faster than any human’s. All your nutrition comes from flowers, each of which pro-vides only a tiny meal, so you often have to travel many miles to and be-tween flowers— and you’re up against thousands of competitors to harvest the goodies. The range of colors you can see is broader than a human’s and includes ultraviolet light, as well as sensitivity for the direction in which light waves oscillate. You have sensory superpowers, such as a magnetic compass. You have protrusions on your head, as long as an arm, which can taste, smell, hear, and sense electric fields (figure 1.2). And you can fly. Given all this, what’s in your mind?
The Challenges of Being a Forager in the Wild
What is in an animal’s (including a human’s) mind is a mixture of infor-mation from its evolutionary history; information passing through the Electron micrograph of a bee’s head. Its antennae can sense surface textures and air cur-rents, tastes, smells, temperature, and electric fields. The large curved eyes on both sides of the head can look in all directions si mul ta neously (except to the back) and possess sensitivity to ultraviolet and polarized light. These com-pound eyes consist of thousands of “micro- eyes” (so- called ommatidia), each with its own hexagonal lens (see inset; scale bar 50 µm), and each of which contributes one pixel to an image. B and C. An impression of how a typical star- shaped flower maps onto the bee’s curved eyes when viewed from a distance of 4 cm. Note the poor visual resolution and the strongly distorted image from this vantage point.
sensory filters it has acquired during evolution; information it has memo-rized from its experience; and things it might imagine, or anticipate. To explore the pos si ble contents of a mind, it helps to think about what matters to the animal in question— what’s impor tant in that animal’s daily life. For example, one thing you can be fairly sure is not on a honey bee worker’s mind is sex: worker bees are typically sterile, and female reproduction is ceded to the queen. On the other hand, flowers are likely to have a com-pletely diff er ent significance in the mind of a bee than in our minds. Because plants can turn solar power into an energy drink— nectar— they mean survival for the individual bee and its family. Pollen— plants’ sperm—is an equally impor tant resource to collect, since it contains high concen-trations of nutritious proteins.
To explore further what plausibly could be on the mind of a creature for whom flowers mean life, imagine a young bee on its first day outside its home. The challenge is to memorize the location of home and landmarks in its surroundings, and to locate profitable flower resources. Moreover, within just a few excursions the bee would be expected to bring home a surplus, or its younger siblings will starve to death. It’s clear that our ex-ploring bee must have a large archive of evolutionary knowledge—it does not have to learn to fly, for example, and it has an inborn knowledge that colored, scented dots in the landscape might be flowers.
However, there are many forms of information for which evolution will not have provided the bee with the necessary guidance, since a lot is un-predictable from one generation to the next. The bee does not know from birth where the flowers are, or what exactly they look like; how to manipu-late them, whether they contain nectar or pollen, whether they are a good resource or poor; even if they are of good species, they may have already been depleted by competitors. All these things need to be explored and learned by each individual bee. In other words, a bee has to learn a lot in its short adult lifetime of perhaps three weeks, or it will neither find its way home nor become an efficient flower forager.
A bee’s first flight is the most dangerous. In bumble bees, up to 10 percent of foragers never return to their native colonies after departing for the first time. Some fail the challenge of accurately remembering the home location; others fall victim to insectivorous birds or sit- and- wait flower predators such as crab spiders. To appreciate the nature of the chal-lenge, imagine human children in this situation. To roughly match the endowment of a few- days- old novice forager bee, let’s assume our experi-mental children are already a few years old (say six years, so of school age).
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