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Can Insects Be Conscious? Let’s Look At Bees First

Consciousness does not seem to reside in the neocortex so complex behavior in bees has raised the question for biologists and philosophers alike

Honeybee scientist Andrew Barron and philosopher Colin Klein, both then at Macquarie University in Australia, argue that bees have some form of consciousness. Let’s look at what they have to say:

Colin Klein

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Barron broached the question of bee consciousness with Klein, who was highly skeptical at first. But Barron pointed out that at least one key theory holds that

…the core of human consciousness is not our impressive neocortex, but our much more primitive midbrain. This simple structure synthesizes sensory data into a unified, egocentric point of view that lets us navigate our world. Insects, Barron and Klein now argue, have midbrain-like structures, including a “central complex,” that seem to allow bugs to similarly model themselves as they move through space.

Abigail Tucker, “Do Insects Have Consciousness?” at Smithsonian Magazine (July 2016)

The dialogue resulted in an open-access paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It is important to qualify what “consciousness” means when we are talking about bees:

While the human midbrain and the insect brain may even be evolutionarily related, an insect’s inner life is obviously more basic than our own. Accordingly, bugs feel something like hunger and pain, and “perhaps very simple analogs of anger,” but no grief or jealousy. “They plan, but don’t imagine,” Klein says.

Abigail Tucker, “Do Insects Have Consciousness?” at Smithsonian Magazine (July 2016)

Barron and Klein also wrote an essay at The Conversation, clarifying their view and arguing that insects can shed light on the origin of consciousness:

It is worth clarifying what we mean when we talk about insect consciousness, since the term consciousness carries a lot of baggage. Everyone agrees that bees can take in environmental information and perform impressive computations on it.

We want to know something more: whether insects can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective. In philosophical jargon, this is sometimes called “phenomenal consciousness”.

Rocks, plants and robots don’t have this. Metaphorically speaking, they are dark inside. Conversely, most of us think that a dog running for its dinner isn’t just a little guided missile. It smells its food, wants to eat and sees the world around it as it runs.

Each of these feel a certain way to us, and they feel like something for the dog too. If that is right, then dogs are conscious, at least in the minimal sense.

Colin Klein, Andrew Barron, “What it is like to be a bee: insects can teach us about the origins of consciousness” at The Conversation (April 18, 2016)

And they posit that, in this sense, bees have consciousness centered in their midbrain:

Neuroscientist Björn Merker has argued that the capacity for awareness in humans depends on structures in the midbrain alone.

The midbrain is the evolutionarily ancient neural core that our enormous neocortex surrounds like a thick rind. Self-awareness requires our evolutionarily young neocortex, but awareness is supported by the simpler and evolutionarily much older midbrain.

Colin Klein, Andrew Barron, “What it is like to be a bee: insects can teach us about the origins of consciousness” at The Conversation (April 18, 2016)

What to make of this? Well, first, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and neuropsychologist Mark Solms would agree that consciousness is not a function of the neocortex — but they locate it not in the midbrain but in the brain stem instead:

This time out (October 22, 2021), he is teamed with distinguished South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring (2021) — who begins by declaring, in his opening statement, “the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem,” not the cerebral cortex, as almost universally assumed. He explains his reasoning with evidence

Egnor doesn’t dispute that statement; in fact, in his own opening statement later, he reinforces it with observations from his own practice.

News, “Consciousness: Is it in the Cerebral Cortex — or the Brain Stem?February 3, 2022” at Mind Matters News (November 6, 2021)

There does not appear to be a clear consensus on where — if anywhere in particular — human consciousness is located.

Catherine Wilson

It is reasonable to believe that bees experience hunger, pain, and anger; otherwise they would hardly be motivated to do the things they do. In other bee research, behavioral ecologist Lars Chittka and philosopher Catherine Wilson found some of the research that followed up on the discovery of the “bee dance” intriguing:

This discovery in 1945 earned the Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; in itself, such communication neither indicates nor requires consciousness. A decade later, however, one of von Frisch’s students, Martin Lindauer, peered into a beehive during the night and discovered that some bees advertised the locations of various foraging bonanzas they’d discovered the previous day. Before midnight, they ‘talked about’ locations visited the previous evening – and in the hours before sunrise, they discussed the locations they’d visited on the morning prior.

These bees retrieved their spatial memories entirely out of context, at a time when there was no possibility of foraging and so no immediate need for communication. The function is unclear. They might have ‘just thought’ about these locations spontaneously during the night. Or perhaps the communication is a strategy for consolidating their spatial memory. Scientists have since found that a bee’s memories of the previous day are strengthened when they are exposed to elements of these memories while in deep sleep. Perhaps bees not only think and ‘talk’, but dream?

The key implication of Lindauer’s discovery is that bees are capable of ‘offline thinking’ about spatial locations, and of linking these locations to a time of day, in the absence of an external trigger. That’s not what should happen if bees’ memories are merely prompted by environmental stimuli, combined with internal triggers such as hunger. Bees, then, appear to have at least one of the principal hallmarks of consciousness: representations of time and space.

Lars Chittka and Catherine Wilson, “Bee-brained” at Aeon (November 27, 2018)

Possibly, but computers can be programmed to do all this and they are not conscious. On the other hand, computers don’t “want” anything and bees do.

In any event, among social insects, a good deal of decision-making is outsourced to the hive mind. It might be worth exploring whether the fact of being a social insect increases an insect’s intelligence (as part of a group), whether or not that increase is experienced as an increase in individual consciousness.

At Cosmos, we learn that bees can learn things that mammals learn:

Bees have a lot going on in their teeny brains; with less than a million neurons compared to the 86 billion that humans boast, they can achieve an impressive array of tasks from basic maths to connecting numbers and symbols.

Now scientists have shown they can perform a complex cognitive feat thought to be unique to humans and a select group of animals such as apes, rats and dolphins: transfer information about an object from one sense to another.

This ability, termed “cross-modal object recognition”, is what helps us find things in the dark, like fumbling around in a cluttered handbag for a set of keys. We can store visual information about the keys and transfer this knowledge to how they feel.

Natalie Parletta, “Bees are even smarter than we thought” at Cosmos (February 20, 2020) The paper requires a subscription.

Possibly, the best approach is to see that bees — despite their very different path in the history of life — can rival mammals in certain types of problem-solving intelligence. They can also want things, which gives them a rudimentary form of consciousness (the bee knows whether it is getting what it wants or not).

If we push it any further, we are likely to run into problems with anthropomorphism — seeing the bees as six-legged people, which they are not.

You may also wish to read: How do insects use their very small brains to think clearly? How do they engage in complex behaviour with only 100,000 to a million neurons? Researchers are finding that insects have a number of strategies for making the most of comparatively few neurons to enable complex behavior.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Insects Be Conscious? Let’s Look At Bees First