Far from being pollen gathering machines, bees just like humans are controlled by their own desires.
They argue that consciousness in humans comes from a structure called the mid-brain, and insects, while they have very different brains, have a similar structure. The midbrain brings together external experiences – from our senses – with inner experiences. Bees don’t just act on their immediate sensations – but they make subjective choices which change their behaviour, the authors claim.
Writing in PNAS, the researchers from MacQuarie University in Sydney state, the authors write:
‘The honey bee particularly is held up as an insect with cognitive capacities that rival those of many mammals. Without consideration of the underlying mechanisms, this may seem like no more than a curiosity.’
But they say that the complex act of flying and gathering pollen is so difficult it requires consciousness to reconcile all the differing demands on the insect. They need to have a complex model of their environment which is affected by their own needs and this is true of many other insect varieties as well.
Research in scans of insect brains show that insects don’t just respond to ‘primary sensory input, but rather by egocentric characteristics’ – the authors state. The authors write: ‘The systems that underlie these abilities were shaped by evolutionary pressures similar to those that shaped the mammalian midbrain. ‘The insect brain does a similar sort of modeling, for the same reasons, in a similar way.’
They add that the question of consciousness in non-human creatures is contentious. Few would argue that chimps have it, for instance, but they argue insects are more likely to have subjective experience than say, jellyfish, they say. But they add: ‘However, consciousness also gives out somewhere. Plants do not have it. It would be surprising if jellyfish did.
‘Where to draw the line between what is conscious and what is not, and how to justify drawing that line, remain hotly debated questions,’ the authors state.
A separate study published in the Journal of Insect Behavior, shows how bumblebees use their buzzing to vibrate flowers to extract pollen – and learn over time to improve how much pollen they gather.
The research was carried out by evolutionary biologist Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling and colleagues on chrysanthemums.
‘Initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals, but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced. This shows the insects’ extensive capacity to learn complex motor skills to maximise their rewards from each flower they come into contact with.’