What Constitutes A Mind? Is There Sentience Within The Smallest Of Creatures?

Around 15 years ago, any suggestion that a bee, or any invertebrate, had a mind of its own or that it could experience the world in an intricate and multifaceted way would be met with ridicule.

As Lars Chittka points out in the opening chapters of The Mind of a Bee, the attribution of human emotions and experiences was seen as naivety and ignorance; anthropomorphism was a dirty word.

Pet owners eagerly ascribe emotions to their animals, but the simple brain of a bee surely could not experience the rich tapestry that is our existence.

The Mind of a Bee is a collection of his research stories. People have long been curious about the behavior of bees. How do bees decide who stays and who leaves when a swarm is formed? The book opens by challenging you to put yourself into the world of a bee.

It is understandable that we have relegated the experience of bees to something simplistic and robotic when you discover the difficulties faced by researchers.

You can tell if someone has visited a flower before you-a flower you picked out of a field of hundreds by its scent, and which you found by following the directions you felt a fellow bee dance for you inside the pitch-black hive perhaps ten kilometers from your current position.

Chittka presents additional research-historical and current-that provides insights into the cognitive skills of bees.

The observer bee can solve the task by copying the goal rather than strictly copying the technique, demonstrating an understanding of the task and the desired outcome. When would a bee ever need to push a ball into a hole to be rewarded with some “Nectar”?

As Chittka rightly points out, the questions we pose to understand the minds of bees must have a biological relevance to make sense.

That is, we need to understand what is important to the survival of bees, what is essential in their existence, and frame our questions of intelligence and sentience around that aspect.

Bees are aware of their bodies and the outcomes of their actions, and they display intentionality through tool use-previously only recognized in humans, primates, and the corvidae family of birds.

Regardless of whether you believe a bee has a mind or not, globally there has been a change in research practices as invertebrates are seen to experience the world more fully.

To suggest an invertebrate, such as a bee, may have these fuller experiences of life is no longer attracting ridicule, but instead is creating an uncomfortable space for insect researchers, who may not wish to confront the reality of their experiments.

We have underestimated the intelligence of bees and other “Lower” species for far too long; it is time to pay attention.

Chittka shows us that bees have the key ingredients of a mind: they have a representation of space, they can learn by observation, and they display simple tool use.

Bees have demonstrated a flexible memory, with ideas of what they want to achieve, an ability to explore suitable solutions to get it, and an awareness of the possible outcomes of their own actions. Experiments have further shown that bees appear to attach emotional states to rewards and punishments.

While some may not be ready to ascribe sentience to something as “Simple” as a bee, this book will prompt you to question why not.