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Anyone who has observed bees would surely intuit their incredible sensitivity to touch, but a few years ago the animal behaviour researchers Mariana Gil and Rodrigo J De Marco from the Institute for Biology and Neurobiology in Berlin wanted to prove something more. They wanted to show that bees communicate cartographic information – including the distance to a nectar source or the location of a new potential hive – through touch.
The team began by looking at the waggle dance of the honeybee, first decoded in 1965 by the ethnologist and later Nobel prizewinner Karl von Frisch. Von Frisch had shown that bees dance a map: direction (left, down, sideways) was encoded by calibrating the dance to the azimuth of the Sun. The length of travel was encoded in the distance of the dance itself. But how did those following the waggle dance catch on? In 2010, using high-speed video, Gil and De Marco found that most followers faced the dancing bees head-on, picking up wagging movements with their antennae. A smaller group of followers faced the dancers from behind, detecting an alternate pattern from the dance. Either way, the more wagging, the more antennal deflection, with all that tactile information presumably sent to the brain.
But what is that experience of touch really like for bees? Does it translate to something like human pain or emotion? Over the years, at my own hives, I have sensed moods, certainly. The bees in the hive that Sainath and I opened together seemed to lack vigour and – dare I say – hope. We decided to destroy the blackened frames, just in case, by fire. But there were survivors. I put those bees on clean frames and their energy lifted.
Within a week or so, I realised something was still amiss because their energy seemed frenetic. When I checked the frames, I found no eggs and no baby queen cells, which meant there was no queen present or soon to be born. A queen is essential because she is the mother of all the new workers in the hive. She lays, on average, 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day. Without a queen, the hive would die.
I quickly called some beekeepers to see if anyone had any queens left and luckily a friend of a friend was able to send one to Wisconsin from Florida. She and her small entourage of attendant workers arrived via express mail in a small makeshift box with sides made out of screen. The queen herself had her own compartment, a wooden box about the length of my thumb which had a screen on one side and a small hole filled with a piece of hard candy at the end, an edible barrier. Her attendants were clustered around her in a lump about the size of my hands clasped together.
When you re-queen a hive, there is always a chance that the bees will reject the new queen and kill her. The way to avoid this is to place the new queen in her tiny compartment inside the hive for at least a day or two so that the bees will grow accustomed to her pheromones before you release her. I placed the tiny container inside the hive, whispered a few words of introduction to the struggling community, closed up the hive, and crossed my fingers. A day later, I pried off the hive cover, carefully pulled back the screen wall of the queen’s chamber and released her into the hive. Immediately, seven or eight workers surrounded her like petals of a sunflower and began stroking and grooming her, and I felt a wave of relief. Within a few days, I perceived the mood of the hive to be calm, happy and busy, at last.
But could bees truly be buffeted by moods in a human-like way? Recent research suggests they can. That work, led by the zoologist Melissa Bateson at Newcastle University, set out to determine whether honeybees could exhibit something akin to pessimism in the face of ambiguity. First, the bees were trained to recognise the ‘positive’ scent of sweet sucrose, associated with reward, and the ‘negative’ scent of bitter quinine, associated with punishment. Then they were captured and slipped into tiny tube-like harnesses, which kept their wings from moving while their heads stuck out the end.
Bateson and her team watched the faces of the bees very carefully. A bee that smells the scent associated with a reward sticks out her tongue. A bee that smells the scent associated with bitterness retracts her mouth-parts. This response is so reliable that bees trained in this manner can be used to detect drugs or explosives.
The scientists at Newcastle wanted to know if stress would affect the bees’ mood, so they vigorously shook one group of bees to simulate an invasion into the hive. The bees, it turns out, were not just physically but also psychologically shaken. Not only did they exhibit lower levels of serotonin and dopamine, they also became pessimistic in their responses, anticipating that samples would be bitter instead of sweet, amounting to punishment, as indicated by expression of the face.
The pessimistic reaction, seen as an emotional response to stress, thrilled the researchers. ‘We show that the bees’ response to a negatively valenced event has more in common with that of vertebrates than previously thought,’ the team wrote in Current Biology in 2011. The finding suggests ‘that honeybees could be regarded as exhibiting emotions’.
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