What is it like to be a bee?

Do bees have feelings? What would that mean? And if they do have feelings, how should we treat them? Do we have a moral obligation […]

Do bees have feelings? What would that mean? And if they do have feelings, how should we treat them? Do we have a moral obligation toward insects?

Honeybees “exhibit pessimism” according to a recent study published in Current Biology, and summarized in this Wired Science article. Pay attention to the Wired headline – “Honeybees might have emotions” – and to these choice clippings as well: “You can’t be pessimistic if you don’t have an inner life.” And, “invertebrates like bees aren’t typically thought of as having human-like emotions.” The implication, of course, is that these invertebrates have been shown to have them.

Inner life? Human-like emotions? Is there “something it is like,” then, to be a bee?

From an ethics standpoint, questions like these make a big difference. As Sam Harris has recently argued, morality is all about the well-being of conscious creatures – that is, creatures with inner life, felt emotions, or “qualia” to use the philosophers’ term. Humans are a paradigm example of qualia-possessing beings, and most of us would agree that there are certain ways we should (and shouldn’t) treat each other, based primarily on the principle that it’s bad to cause unnecessary suffering. Why is it bad? Because suffering hurts – it feels bad, subjectively – and it would be supremely selfish for any of us to avoid suffering only for ourselves.

Why shouldn’t we be selfish, you ask? Good question, but not right now, Johnny.

Ethicists like Peter Singer have done a lot of work to get us thinking about the suffering of non-human animals, and have urged that we have a moral responsibility not to harm them. That is, we have a responsibility to extend the “do no harm” principle beyond the realm of homo sapiens. This feels intuitively right when it comes to the family dog or cat; and it’s certainly no surprise that many vegetarians come from the ranks of former meat-eaters who read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Cleary other animals feel pain, and we shouldn’t inflict it on them willy-nilly. Maybe we shouldn’t inflict it at all.

But bees? Those stinging little buggers from the garden? Who cares?

Well, let’s not raise the morality alarm just yet. First we should take a more detailed look at the bee experiment, due to Melissa Bateson and Jeri Wright from Newcastle University, to see what it actually involved, and what it can reasonably be taken to show.

Here’s what they did. The researchers trained a handful of worker bees – strapped in little tiny bee-harnesses, by the way – to associate a certain distinctive odor (call it odor A) with a reward, namely a lick of sugar. In addition, they trained those same bees to associate a certain different odor (call it odor B) with punishment: a lick of quinine, which tastes bitter and unpleasant. Spray the odor, give the sugar or quinine, rinse and repeat. It’s “Pavlov’s Dog” for bees. The actual behavior they looked at – to measure the “association” – was the extension or retraction of mouthparts. Pushing mouthparts outward showed the bee was reaching for an anticipated reward; pulling mouthparts inward meant it was avoiding anticipated punishment.

After this training session, the researchers took half of the bees and shook them for 60 seconds (leaving the other half alone) and then exposed both groups to some odors that were gradient between odor A and odor B.

Shaking is stressful for bees, as it can signal an attack by a predator.

They found that the all-shook-up bees were more likely to associate the in-between odors with punishment compared to reward. That is, they were more likely to retract their mouthparts when faced with the ambiguous smells than they were to extend them.

This pattern of behavior can pretty fairly be called a bias, and the agitated bees clearly exhibited it, when compared to their undisturbed counterparts, to a statistically significant degree.

That’s a pretty interesting finding, and it tells us something about how bees respond to ambiguous stimuli after they’ve been rattled around a bit. Maybe it’s an evolved survival strategy with a logic something like this: When you’re in a dangerous or stressful situation, it’s best to play it safe when it comes to (possible) poison. OK – so far so good.

But what is all this talk about human-like emotions and inner life? Are we supposed to bee-lieve (sorry) that the jangled-up insects subjectively felt pessimistic – or maybe even depressed? Are bees “conscious” in the way that humans are?

Not necessarily. I think there’s some confusion going on about the word “emotion” – and I’ll explain what this confusion is in just a moment. First, though, let’s take a closer look at the scientists’ argument, in particular their reasons for suggesting that bees may have emotions.

Step one: Human beings sometimes show “pessimistic” cognitive biases, as when a depressed person sees a frown in a neutral expression.

Step two: We know that these cognitive biases correlate with certain felt emotions in humans – like the sad feeling that comes with depression – as well as with certain chemical and physiological signals that can be measured objectively.

Step three: Human beings have a really handy self-report tool – language – which they can use to tell other human beings about their internal states. In addition, each of us knows, from our own experience, what it feels like to be in a state like sadness, and we assume that others feel that way when they tell us, “I’m feeling blue.” Other animals, and insects like bees, dont have this nice language tool, so we’re stuck using the “objective” measures only when trying to decide whats going on inside their heads.

Step four: Other animals, and now insects like bees, have been shown to exhibit the following things: (1) pessimistic cognitive biases (as shown through their behavior), and (2) some of the chemical and physiological signals that correlate with felt, subjective emotions (like sadness) in humans. (I didn’t tell you about this part, but the researchers took a separate group of bees, shook them up, and extracted chemical samples to prove the point.)

Step five: Given that the bees show the very same type of behavior (as well as the same chemical markers) that humans show when they experience certain emotions, shouldn’t we suppose that bees experience those emotions, too?

What do you think?

I’m not totally convinced. Here’s where I’ll tease out the confusion about the word “emotion” because it will help me explain why not. “Emotion” can refer to any number of things, but there are at least a couple of major senses of the term as it applies to human beings. On the one hand, “emotion” can refer to certain brain processes and physiological states of arousal that are triggered by stimuli and which guide behavior – a sort of “brain-level” or unconscious sense of emotion, and the sort we can measure “objectively” in ourselves and other animals. On the other hand, it can refer to that first-personal, private, subjective, self-reportable feeling people have when their brains and bodies are going through those processes and states.

It should be pretty easy to believe that bees have emotions of the first kind. But to call those emotions “human-like” assumes that the first sense always goes together with the second sense, as it seems to do in humans. But why should we think it does?

To be fair to the scientists, they were careful to address this point in the original Current Biology article:

“Although our results do not allow us to make any claims about the presence of negative subjective feelings in honeybees, they call into question how we identify emotions in any nonhuman animal.”

So what does all of this mean for morality? In the case of humans, we think it’s wrong to cause needless pain, in large part because we know, from our own, first-person experience, what it’s like to feel pain. And we sense that there is something unfair about wishing that felt experience on someone else – specifically someone else capable of subjectively having those very same sort of feelings. It’s not that we want to avoid triggering certain brain states in our fellow humans; we want to avoid triggering the way those brain states feel to them.

To extend this reasoning to bees, then, we’ll have to make up our minds about the relationship between objective “brain states” and subjective, felt experience in the case of other animals and insects. I havent made up my mind yet – at least when it comes to bees. Have you?

Originally written for Practical Ethics


About Brian Earp