The Sweet Emotional Life of Bees

Sep 30, 2016

By James Gorman

It is hard enough to figure out emotions in humans — but insects?

Nonetheless, as far back as Darwin, scientists have suggested that insects have something like emotional states, and researchers continue, despite the difficulties, to try to pin those states down.

The latest contribution suggests that a sweet treat can change the way bumble bees make decisions, producing something akin — although perhaps distantly related — to optimism.


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14 comments on “The Sweet Emotional Life of Bees

  • I think emotions are deeply primitive but extensive brain overlays (most often triggered by hormonal brain baths) to set the organism into different functional modes. These are not to be distinguished from any other form of automatism, per se.

    I think having feelings, which involves introspection, associating an idea of yourself in the context of the (new) emotional you, Delta You, requires, inevitably, a sense of you (me) in the first place.

    I think social animals (perhaps paradoxically) are the ones most likely to develop a sense of singular identity, when, say, they are the ones bearing news…nectar! If not the actuality, the roots are there to manifest up the evolutionary tree.

    Our human and very particular sense of self (accumulating properties for itself), it is hypothesised, developed only after observing and modeling the properties of others to predict what they may do. (We model ourselves for exactly the same reason. What am I possibly going to do next? What am I likely to do if…)



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  • By the way, when did optimism (and pessimism, for that matter) become an emotion(s)? Certainly emotions are involved in optimism, but it seems more like an attitude or predisposition to me.



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  • I think neither optimism nor pessimism constitute emotion but rather a defensive parsing of experience and prospect to minimise disturbance to us. Both have their rewards and risks and are respectively a strategy to persist against evidence (but not reason) or endure in the face of evidence and reason. (These two are not opposites, are often rational and may both be mistaken. I believe faith a better opposite of pessimism.)



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  • …optimism [and] pessimism constitute… a defensive parsing of experience and prospect to minimise disturbance to us… and are respectively a strategy to persist against evidence (but not reason) or endure in the face of evidence and reason.

    So, based on this, an animal that is incapable of reason can be neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Conversely, if optimism (or pessimism) is detected, then reasoning ability must exist. (Is that a valid conclusion?)

    (These two are not opposites…

    I’m having a hard time agreeing with your definitions. My quick and dirty definitions have always been: optimism = positive expectations or outlook; pessimism = negative expectations or outlook. I think these roughly but sufficiently agree with dictionary definitions. It’s hard not to see these as opposites.

    …I believe faith a better opposite of pessimism.)

    Which definition of faith are you comparing to your definition of pessimism?



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  • PP

    In my definition of optimism and pessimism I am trying to roll in what might be the evolutionary pressure to drive such distinctive behaviours.

    I propose they are defence strategies against potentially overwhelming negative emotions that would otherwise stop the animal (?) acting. (I think there are a wealth of such neural strategies to prevent bigger brains from simply locking up with a wealth of conflicting or disabling data/drives).

    Pessimism, expecting failure , spreads the experience of failure and reduces the intensity of a sudden hit of the stuff. It not only simply softens the blow and allows normal life (albeit one attuned to failure) to carry on, it has the sweeter cherry of unexpected success. The downside to expecting failure is to habitually under invest in good instincts.

    This can be entirely pre-intellectual. Its pre-intellectual opposite is faith. This is an un-evidenced and of course unreasoned, expectation of success. (The virtue of faith is persistence, but, turned into dogma by culture, preventing learning, this quickly and simply becomes “barking up the wrong tree”, wasting quite astonishing levels of effort and resources.) The expectation of success allows action up to the dreadful moment encouraging sustained commitment of resources improving the chances of success in some instances.

    With the advent of intellectual life, faith can be turned into something more useful. Optimism. This I contend, in distinction to simple faith, confers the virtues of persistence even in the face of the repeated evidence of failure, if there is some reason to persist. I suggest people sometimes describe as optimism what may be better described as faith.

    I suggest that pessimism got an intellectual upgrade into skepticism (its going to fail for a reason).

    Like sympathy is the intellectualisation of the quasi-emotion, empathy, so optimism and skepticism are the intellectualisations of the quasi-emotions faith and pessimism….in my dictionary. At least this is how I use those words.



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  • This [pessimism] can be entirely pre-intellectual. Its pre-intellectual opposite is faith. This is an un-evidenced and of course unreasoned, expectation of success.

    I suggest that pessimism got an intellectual upgrade into skepticism (its going to fail for a reason).

    Faith may be un-evidenced, but it is not “unreasoned” so much as it is a product of flawed reasoning (which requires reasoning ability), as faith makes no sense in the absence of reason[ing ability]. I suggest optimism makes better sense as pessimism’s “pre-intellectual” opposite, and that faith is the “post-intellectual” (upgraded) opposite of skepticism (which I agree is the “upgrade” from pessimism).

    With the advent of intellectual life, faith can be turned into something more useful. Optimism.

    I see it the other way around, and the bee studies may support that view (unless perhaps you’re suggesting the researchers are using the wrong term and they’ve actually detected faith in bee behavior).

    I suggest people sometimes describe as optimism what may be better described as faith.

    I agree that this occurs, but it is perhaps more because of trouble with definitions than with any misunderstanding about the relationship between the two.



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  • If a desire to remain alive is an emotion than all living creatures have emotions. And I have never seen an insect or any creature – a worm or what have you – that did not exhibit panic when its life was in danger; it is quite possible that panic is the one “emotion” that is most common to most animals.



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  • Dan, I doubt panic is the evolutionary goal and the selective pressure driving staying alive. Homeostasis is the undergirding proto-purpose of all life preserving behaviours from bacteria to orcas (and humans). It probably undergirds all behaviours.

    “Most urgent striving in immediate perceived danger” is the behaviour witnessed. We may judge it panic when it is to no end. Such threats are too often terminal to lead to more effective ploys. Epinephrine (or its pre-cursor chemical) and its excited chemical bath is the most basic emotion on display here.

    Quite a number of animals play dead. They display thanatosis or some other form of tonic immobility. This is a fear response and is clearly adaptive. Attacked gazelles go limp in the slim prospect of being taken for dead yet not eaten and saved for later.



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  • @phil-rimmer #9

    After which do you feel it may be profitable to ask why?

    Well, that would depend on whose definitions of the words we are using.

    @danielr-2 #10

    If a desire to remain alive is an emotion…

    …it is quite possible that panic is the one “emotion”…

    It isn’t. And neither is panic, unless you mean it as a variety of fear. The four basic emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. (Even love and hate are not basic emotions, as some would have us believe, but complex combinations of the basic ones.)



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  • PPecan, Phil, others

    I said “if”.

    Four basic emotions. That has to be examined and studied – and one could spend a lifetime doing that and still not understand these emotions. Happiness, for example. It’s just a word. How is the relief (felt by a bee) of not dying not a form of gratification. And how is gratification not a form of happiness?

    I don’t think that bees have much emotion, but the difference between what they feel and what we call emotion is quantitative.

    I also think we need to be very careful how we use words, as I said in my comment on the Panpsychism thread. I am the last person to label things as emotion too quickly, and misapply them. But in this case I would argue that the instinct of self-preservation, common to all animals, presupposes a desire to remain alive. And if desire is an emotion than…

    All emotions are feelings. Not all feelings are emotions. Desire to live (which all animals have) is a feeling. You decide if that constitutes an emotion. I said it might be.



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  • Dan,

    All emotions are feelings.

    I think this a can of worms full of semantic traps.

    I think it wasteful of good words to conflate emotion and feeling. It also conceals the pre-conscious origins of emotion in pre-conscious animals. (It is about seeing the continuum of emotion from effect to affect. The transition into “affect” justifies the advent of a secondary process…feeling.)

    The Loevheim (“o” umlaut) cube and affect theory come closest to my thinking. Antonio Damasio and Derek Denton use all these terms most usefully in my view.



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