Do Honeybees Feel? Scientists Are Entertaining the Idea

Apr 19, 2016

Photo credit: Tomasz Wojtasik

By James Gorman

Bees find nectar and tell their hive-mates; flies evade the swatter; and cockroaches seem to do whatever they like wherever they like. But who would believe that insects are conscious, that they are aware of what’s going on, not just little biobots?

Neuroscientists and philosophers apparently. As scientists lean increasingly toward recognizing that nonhuman animals are conscious in one way or another, the question becomes: Where does consciousness end?

Andrew B. Barron, a cognitive scientist, and Colin Klein, a philosopher, at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, propose in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that insects have the capacity for consciousness.

This does not mean that a honeybee thinks, “Why am I not the queen?” or even, “Oh, I like that nectar.” But, Dr. Barron and Dr. Klein wrote in a scientific essay, the honeybee has the capacity to feel something.

Their claim stops short of some others. Christof Koch, the president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, have proposed that consciousness is nearly ubiquitous in different degrees, and can be present even in nonliving arrangements of matter, to varying degrees.

They say that rather than wonder how consciousness arises, one should look at where we know it exists and go from there to where else it might exist.

They conclude that it is an inherent property of physical systems in which information moves around in a certain way — and that could include some kinds of artificial intelligence and even naturally occurring nonliving matter.

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3 comments on “Do Honeybees Feel? Scientists Are Entertaining the Idea

  • “Insects might have subjective experience,” he wrote, “but not of a kind that has a lot of ethical consequences.”

    This is why we still need philosophers. Cue Pete Singer.

    I am disappointed in the level of conscious thinking of these scientists given what has been thought by philosopher scientists before.

    This kind of article always resets us to zero and ultimately offers us no real progress.

    The key kinds of attributes needed for an ethically significant type of consciousness are minds that form self models and can run these models forwards and backwards in time, and to have aversive and rewarding chemical washes not only in the moment but in anticipation and retrospection of the moment.

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  • Do bees feel? In other research, is water wet?

    Seriously though, it depends on how you define feeling/consciousness. Is reacting to stimulus enough? Or is “planning ahead” required? Avoiding pain, or actively fighting back against whatever is causing the pain?

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