Saturday, September 17, 2022

Lars Chittka's "The Mind of a Bee"

Lars Chittka is Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University of London.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book The Mind of a Bee, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Mind of a Bee contains just a single paragraph, the last sentences of the summary of a chapter about bees’ remarkable spatial memories. Yet you can discern a few key messages of the book. Bees owe their seemingly peaceful and vegan lifestyle to forebears who lived by very different rules: not only were these ancestors carnivorous, but in fact they were nature’s cruellest killers – parasitoid wasps that paralyse their prey, to be consumed alive by the wasps’ offspring.

The book is about bees’ astonishing intelligence – we have discovered in the last few decades that they can count, recognise images of human faces, learn simple forms of tool use, copy such techniques by observing each other, and might even be conscious. How did these remarkable abilities evolve in a miniature brain of an insect? The summary on page 99 reminds us that a key element in the evolution of intelligence of bees was the switch, in a Triassic wasp-like ancestor, from a vagabond lifestyle to being the owner of a home – constructing a nest that contained the offspring, which required frequent commuting between this home and foraging sites with the nutrition required for larval provisioning. This lifestyle brought with it a transformation of the brain. The so-called mushroom bodies, insect brain areas for multisensory integration and memory storage, ballooned in size to accommodate the required additional memory capacity.

The possession of a home came with a selection pressure for precise spatial memory: the ancestor of bees that failed to remember their nesting site would have lost her “babies”. We learn in this chapter that bees have thus evolved very impressive cognitive capacities. They can navigate with high precision over miles, use a sun compass, polarised light and landmark memories. They remember multiple feeding sites over long periods and link them in an efficient manner, much like a travelling salesman does.

The paragraph on page 99 summarises how the increased memory capacity in bees’ distant ancestors prepared them for becoming the intellectual giants of the insect world: to become careful shoppers in the floral supermarket, where bees not just learn to associate flower signals with rewards, but also learn to manipulate the often-complex “puzzle boxes” that are flowers, and even learn concepts and rules that distinguish multiple different flower types from unrewarding ones.
Visit Lars Chittka's website.

--Marshal Zeringue