The Mind of a Bee

Lars Chittka
Princeton University Press, £25.00

The Mind of a Bee gives fascinating insights into bees’ remarkable behaviour and abilities. Despite their tiny brains, honeybees can optimise routes between different patches of food and bumblebees can use tools. Scientists are constantly making discoveries about the problems that bees can solve, but many mysteries remain about how they accomplish this. We have no idea, for example, how honeybees can cooperate to adapt their honeycomb structure to the space available.  

Chittka’s awe at the natural world is infectious, acting as an important reminder to take notice of the wonders surrounding us. As he points out, “insect pollinators painted the world”. Insects’ colour receptors evolved before the appearance of flowering plants, meaning flower colours evolved in response to insect vision, not the other way round. We have insects to thank for the spectacular colours and shapes of flowers.

Perhaps the most important question the book tackles is whether bees have any form of consciousness. Does the mind of a bee allow it to be aware of the world around it, experience some form of emotion, or distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘other’? Chittka acknowledges that we are in speculative territory, but finds the mounting evidence compelling.  

He describes the evidence that comes from experiments in the laboratory and field, observations in the natural world and advances in neuroscience. The detailed explanations of key experiments are often supported by high-quality diagrams or images, making the The Mind of a Bee more approachable.

Not only are questions about the possibility of bee consciousness fascinating, they are also ethically important. Chittka laments the fact that current legislation in most countries doesn’t put restrictions on the treatment of invertebrates because of the assumption that they do not feel pain or emotions. Combined with the importance of insects to ecosystems and food supplies, this is a compelling argument for continuing to research the minds of bees.

Rebecca Nesbit