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Bees Feel Pain. And Therefore… Insect Rights?

As we learn more from research about how various life forms respond to experiences, a more complex picture may raise political issues

From an online newsletter from Vox writer Kenny Torrella, we learn of a research study confirming that bumblebees feel pain:

In a study published last week in the journal PNAS, researchers in the United Kingdom found that bees make trade-offs about how much pain they’re willing to tolerate in order to get better food. The finding suggests bees aren’t just mindless automata responding to stimuli but rather conscious, feeling creatures that can experience pain and engage in complex decision-making.

Kenny Torrella, “Can a bee feel,” Vox (August 5, 2022) The paper is open access.
Cuckoo bumblebee/David Inouye, University of Maryland

Essentially, the researchers offered bumblebees sugar water in color-cued unheated containers, at solutions of 10%, 20%, 30%, or 40%. Then they introduced a catch: They heated up the high-sugar containers to an unpleasant 55°C (131°F) The bees continued to prefer to drink from the high-sugar containers. However, when unheated high-sugar containers were available, they gravitated to those. The study’s abstract, which is admirably easy to read, offers

Bees used learned color cues for their decisions, and thus the trade-off was based on processing in the brain, rather than just peripheral processing. Therefore, bees can use contextual information to modulate nociceptive behavior. This ability is consistent with a capacity for pain experiences in insects.

Motivational trade-offs and modulation of nociception in bumblebees Matilda Gibbons, Elisabetta Versace, Andrew Crump, Bartosz Baran, and Lars Chittka, July 26, 2022, 119 (31) e2205821119 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2205821119

Heather Browning at the London School of Economics tells Torrella that this result is “revolutionary” because “ the ability to make motivational trade-offs is an important marker in determining sentience” (the ability to feel pain).

Perhaps. Many people would not be as surprised as she is by this result. Pain for gain is an ancient problem. If bees could not experience pain, take chances, or learn from their experiences, they would hardly be around in such numbers today. But do their responses proceed from consciousness or from coding? The responses might be, as Eric Cassell would put it, an evolutionary algorithm: prepackaged decision trees for conventional circumstances.

Sentience may be quite real but not associated with consciousness. Apart from consciousness, is anyone doing the feeling? The study doesn’t (and can’t) address that.

One of writer Torrella’s advocacy areas is the “future of meat” (that is, advocacy for a meat-free human diet). He is quick to grasp the implications of sentience in insects for animal rights advocacy:

The debate over whether insects are sentient may seem frivolous, given how distant they feel from mammals, let alone human beings. But every past debate over who deserves moral attention and just how wide our circle of concern should be has seemed frivolous to some. If just a small fraction of the 10 quintillion insects alive right now can feel pain, some changes may need to be in order.

Kenny Torrella, “Can a bee feel,” Vox (August 5, 2022)

He explicitly assures readers that the new concern about pain in bees is not about insect rights:

As revolutionary as the new study may be, it won’t usher in a revolution of insect rights — just look at how we treat many birds and mammals despite general consensus on their sentience.

Kenny Torrella, “Can a bee feel,” Vox (August 5, 2022)

But the critical question should be: Is that for lack of interest in insect rights on the part of animal rights activists or their lack of the ability (so far) to get it on the agenda? PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), responds to the question, “What about insects and other ‘pests’?” by saying “All animals have feelings and have a right to live free from unnecessary suffering—regardless of whether they are considered ‘pests’ or ‘ugly,’” adding “PETA encourages nonlethal methods of insect and rodent control whenever possible.” This sounds like a coiled spring of an agenda.

Eastern Tent Caterpillars on a web in a tree in early spring
Tent caterpillars

A successful insect rights movement might be dire for most humans because an estimated 40% of crops are lost to insects every year, despite best efforts at all types of control.

Bees drive a fair bit of the research into the insect mind but — unusually for an insect — many species directly give us a food source, honey. Indirectly, all of them do, through pollination. Our relationship with locusts and tent caterpillars, by contrast, has hardly been cozy…

What about just eating insects, as advocated in many respected sources? Torrella urges us to think twice about that:

Many cultures around the world have long eaten insects, but in recent years there’s been a rise in insect factory farming — primarily to supply feed for factory-farmed chicken and fish, rather than for direct human consumption. It’s an emerging trend we might want to think twice about.

Kenny Torrella, “Can a bee feel,” Vox (August 5, 2022)

Well-meaning souls who embrace the current advocacy for eating insects in order to help the planet could well gain nothing in the way of righteousness, as far as animal rights advocates are concerned.

The most senior author of the bumblebee study noted above is entomologist Lars Chittka, whose specialty is bumblebees. He has just published The Mind of a Bee (Princeton University Press, 2022), whose controversial 11th chapter argues for an elementary form of consciousness in the individual bee.

Next: Do bees “feel and think,” as a new Princeton Press book claims?

You may also wish to read: Do ants think? Yes, they do — but they think like computers. Computer programmers have adapted some ant problem-solving methods to software programs (but without the need for complex chemical scents). Navigation expert Eric Cassell points out that algorithms have made the ant one of the most successful insects ever, both in numbers and complexity.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Bees Feel Pain. And Therefore… Insect Rights?