Your Source For Beekeeping News, Information and Entertainment
May 8, 2023

What A Bee Knows with Stephen Buchmann (S5, E47)

Anyone who's watch the front entrance of a hive or watched honey bee gathering nectar and pollen from flowers on a tree or a field of flowers has wondered about the life of a bee. That ultimately leads to the wonderment of just what does a bee...

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Anyone who's watch the front entrance of a hive or watched honey bee gathering nectar and pollen from flowers on a tree or a field of flowers has wondered about the life of a bee. That ultimately leads to the wonderment of just what does a bee perceive of its environment and how does a bee use that information. In today's episode, we talk with Dr. Stephen Buchmann, who has studied and research bees and written a book, "What A Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories and personalities of Bees".

Honey bees are so small. They are insects. Do they even really have a brain - as we know it? If so, what kind of brain do they have and how does it work?! Can they learn? Can they actually use this information? Are they smart? Do they have dreams and make plans?

Probably something everyone what that hive entrance or standing over an open hive, looking down at the rows of bees looking back at them, have wondered is: Are they aware of themselves? Are they conscious?

We talk with Stephen about his research, the research of others and how his book brings it all together. This is an enlightening discussion and one we know will leave you with a new persective about the honey bee.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

Honey Bee Obscura


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S5, E47 – What A Bee Knows with Stephen Buchmann


Jeff Ott:Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast, your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim Flottum:And I'm Kim Flottum.

Global Patties:Hey, Jeff and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honeybees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hive's protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of patty is right for your area and your honeybees.

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Jeff:Thank you, Sherry, and a quick shout-out to all of our sponsors whose support allows us to bring you this podcast each week without resorting to a fee-based subscription. We don't want that, and we know you don't either. Be sure to check out all of our content on our website. There you can read up on all our guests, read our blog on the various aspects and observations about beekeeping, search for, download, and listen to over 200 past episodes, read episode transcripts, leave comments and feedback on each show, and check on podcast specials from our sponsors. You can find it all at

Hey, everybody, thanks again for joining. We have a great show lined up for you today. You can help us open the next episode of Beekeeping Today Podcast by sending a greeting to us much like you've heard earlier this month from other listeners, just saying who you are, how many bees you keep, and welcoming other listeners to the show. Kim will be joining in just a few moments.

Have you ever opened your hive and looked down at all those bees on top and maybe between the frames you see all these little heads looking at you and watching every move you make? Have you ever thought, "Jeez, what is that bee thinking?" Come to think of it, what does that bee know? Well, today's guest, Dr. Stephen Buchmann of the University of Arizona, he wrote a book about what a bee knows, exploring the thoughts, memories, and personality of bees.

Now, this is a fantastic book. He explores all aspects of the bee's mind, and he starts with really the bee brain, the biology of it, how it's constructed, and then he goes to talk about how the bee perceives the world around it, and then he starts talking about is a bee smart, and then bee's memory, and do bees dream when they sleep or do they sleep? Then in the book, he starts to talk about what do bees feel? How do they perceive that information? Do they feel pain?

Those are questions we as beekeepers think about, especially when you're putting the top back on the colony. Finally, and perhaps the most controversial question, is a bee self-aware? This is a really fascinating book, and he's here in just a few moments to talk to us about these very same things. I'm sure you'll enjoy this show. I really enjoy talking with him. Let's get to it right away, but first, a couple of quick words from our sponsors.

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Jeff:While you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, the regular newsletter full of interesting beekeeping facts and product updates. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. Sitting across the virtual Zoom table right now is none other than Dr. Stephen Buchmann. Steve, welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Stephen Buchmann:Thanks. It's fun to be here.

Kim:It's been a long time, Steve. Good to see you again.

Stephen:Thanks. It has been a long time. I ended the USDA part of my career, gosh, 23 years ago at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson. I was there from '79 to 2000, but have been as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona in the entomology department throughout that time and ever since.

Kim:I think I got to the bee lab to visit you folks just before you left. I remember you being there, but you gave me the date. You were probably packing when I was there.

Jeff:[laughs] Stephen, we've invited you to the podcast today to talk about your book, What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees. For beekeepers, I think it's a wonderful topic, and I am sure that it also is controversial, too. I've been looking forward to this conversation with you, and I'm really glad you're here. For our listeners who aren't familiar with you, can you give us a little bit about your background, and who you are, and et cetera, so forth? [chuckles]

Stephen:I think about the third grade, I decided I wanted to be an entomologist. I couldn't spell it, but I was raising caterpillars and chasing all kinds of insects around my backyard in the chaparral-covered hills of Southern California. I did my bachelor's in biological science and master's at California State University at Fullerton, again, in Southern California. I actually, as a junior in high school, started working with a college professor who became my mentor and eventually got my master's degree with him, the late, great C Eugene Jones, Jr, who was at Cal State Fullerton.

From Fullerton, I went up to UC Davis, actually splitting my time halfway between Berkeley where two of my committee members were, and Davis where my main research advisor, Robin Thorpe, was teaching. After that, I came to Tucson in '79 and became-- simultaneously with USDA, was also doing a little bit of teaching and mentoring students at the University of Arizona.

Actually today, I have a joint appointment in two departments; in the Entomology Department, which is my home department, and then also the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. That's about it. It brings us to where we are.

Jeff:That's fantastic. You've authored, and you've been a part of many, many research papers. I'd love to have you back many times to talk about all the research you've done, but your book, What a Bee Knows, is really fascinating, and I'm sure a culmination of so much of your research and those of others. What was the inspiration for writing this book? Why did you decide at this point to write this book?

Stephen:I've done a number of bee and pollination books. My first book was way back in 1996 with Gary Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators, which was a Rachel Carson call to arms stating that not just honeybees but nectar bats, hummingbirds, flies, wasps, losing a lot of pollinators around the world, and what can we do about it? I wrote a book called Letters from the Hive, did a children's book based on my research in Malaysia called The Bee Tree.

I really consider myself a pollination ecologist, and by that, I mean, I'm a floral biologist. I like to stick my head in flowers, not just crop plants, but wildflowers, like here in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, figure out who comes in. Mostly I work on bee pollination, although I've done a little bit with nectar bats and hummingbirds too. I like to bring a lot of high-tech, actually, to bear upon some of these things.

I've used radar in Australia to look at origin trails of honeybees going to a plant there called Paterson's Curse, or the beekeepers like to call that one Salvation Jane because it produces a great honey crop. I put different quartz lenses on cameras and visible blocking filters to reveal hidden ultraviolet patterns, what the bees see, but that we can't. Then right now, I'm waiting for some flowers to bloom in Arizona, and we use these little personal air samplers, and we're going to be sucking air through these into some chemical traps.

This is a plant that one of my favorite native bees and oil-collecting bee in the genus Centris visits. It's called Ratany or Krameria. The cool thing about it is that it smells like raspberry. With some chemical sleuthing in the lab using the gas chromatograph, we figured out that this flower has beta-ionone, which is a fancy chemical term for the raspberry smell. I'd like to bring some fancy science gadgets into just observational skills or photography to figure out what bees are doing.

The book was natural. I wanted to combine what I know about some bee sensory physiology, how bees see smell, touch, and taste the world around them, and how those things are different or maybe similar to what we as humans see. I really wanted to write a new book about that. I wanted to jump out of my comfort zone a little bit and get into some topics that maybe I wasn't researching but things that colleagues around the world, for example, my colleague and friend, Lars Chittka, in England who wrote a really fine book last year called The Mind of a Bee.

Wanted to get out of that comfort zone and review some of the fun new things that people were finding out, truly amazing things about bees. These things are controversial. I'm taking a little bit of heat for some of these as did Lars, but we can get to that toward the end of the talk.

Jeff:We're talking to Dr. Chittka early this summer. We're looking forward to that. This is a nice bookend type conversation we're starting. Let's start at the beginning. Do honeybees have a brain? They're an insect. They have a brain or just like nerve endings, ganglia, throughout the body.

Stephen:They've got a little bit of both. They've got segmental ganglia. One of the things in my book, I reproduce one of my favorite scientist illustrators, Robert Snodgrass, who was working in Washington, DC in the early 1900s. I put in a figure that he drew that shows these little bunches of ganglia in the different segments of the bee body. They've got a brain. They've got a well-developed brain, but it's tiny.

Sometimes people say it's a size of a sesame seed. Well, that's too big. More like a poppy seed. They've got 1 million neurons, where our massive human style brains have something on the order of 80 to 100 billion neurons. In that little honeybee brain, which is pretty much the same size in bumblebees and some of the solitary bees that I work with, it's like a collection of a million cells, although it may have 1 billion synaptic connections. Pretty powerful, divided into different regions, not hemispheres like ours, but optic and olfactory lobes, all kinds of neat things going on in that tiny brain.

Jeff:How is that structured? Do you have the two different lobes probably near the eyes, and how does that function to serve the rest of the bee in the processing information?

Stephen:You've got these massive optic lobes that are bringing in all the information from about 5,000 different individual cells that we call ommatidia that are looking out at the world in different directions, giving bees what has been called mosaic vision, not quite right, but comes close. Then there are some higher processing centers that look like what I like to go out into the field and collect. I'm a wild mushroom gatherer. There are things in the honeybee brain called mushroom bodies that are involved with a lot of the higher sensory processing.

Jeff:The bees have a brain the size of, you said, a poppy seed, but there's a lot going on in there. I know intelligence is measured in so many different ways. How smart is a bee?

Stephen:Pretty smart. We can't really give them an IQ test, but we can do some weird things with them in the lab. Bees can be taught to walk through mazes to get a sugar reward. I would consider them tool users. One of my favorite things that I talk about in the book is an experiment that Lars Chittka and his students did where they trained bumblebees, in this case, to pull a string that was attached to a little round plastic disc.

In that disc were little wells that were filled with sugar water. Bees are sugar junkies, they love it. That's a great reward for them. It was hidden under a clear plastic cover. They could see it, they knew they wanted it, but they couldn't really get to it. They were trained to pull the string, to their size and scale, like a giant rope on a ship or something.

They grab it and tug and tug and tug and pull it out from under the cover, and all of a sudden, they can get the goodies. As amazing as that is, considering the string to be tool-like, bees that were just allowed to sit in a cage nearby, and they could see their hive mates, their sisters that were trained to pull the string and get the sugar, just by watching when they were released from their cage, they immediately went over and pulled the string and got the stuff without ever having done it.

They were learning by watching. In animal behavior, we call that social learning. Pretty amazing. Not many animals that we know about can do that.

Jeff:That is amazing. The implications of that are pretty astounding, actually. They're very myopic. It would have to be fairly close that they would be able to learn to see that.

Stephen:Yes. Just like me as a kid before my cataract surgery. I had the Coke bottle glasses. Bees can't really tell there are flowers around until they're hovering really close to them, I would say 6 to 10 inches away, then they really start to form a good image of the flower. When they're flying over a flowering meadow, for example, they see a blur of colors. They're highly attracted as saturated colors and yellows and blues, and then they see ultraviolet as a distinct color.

When they're flying, they can see things that would happen too quickly for us. I like to tell people that if you sat a honeybee down in a movie theater, it would be bored to tears because things are not happening fast. For us, in a cinema, 24 frames per second, it gets fused in our brain, and we think it's motion when really it's still stop action, 24 still frames per second. The bees would see those 24 frames. It wouldn't be a bee movie until you got up, probably over 100 or more frames per second.

Jeff:They're also processing everything, not only the visual cues but also sensory?

Stephen:Yes. I should explain a little bit about the vision. Their vision is like ours. It's called trichromatic or three-color. We see red, green, blue as our primary colors. The bees see blue, green, UV as their primary colors. Human vision is shifted into the red, but bees are pretty much red blind and their vision is shifted down toward those shorter wavelengths in the purple and ultraviolet.

They're getting olfactory cues too. They don't have a nose, but they do have antennae, the feelers, and there are lots of different sensilli on them. They can also taste a little bit with the sensory cells on their mouth parts and around the mouth cavity proper, and on their feet a little bit. Most of that is happening with the antennae. Chittka and others who have looked at olfaction talk about the bees with waving their antennae around, and basically, it's like having a nose that's separated by quite a bit of distance.

We have some indication that they might be smelling in stereo. As they're following the odor plume from a nice flower scent patch or maybe a beekeeper is training bees and has some kind of odor, or maybe they're going to a swarm trap or something, they can pick up differential sense and stay in the center of that odor plume. While their vision is about 60 times worse than our resolution because we have millions of cells in our retinas as opposed to 5,000 in their compound eyes, our smell is similar and the taste for bees is similar.

We can both smell sweet, salty, bitter, those sorts of nuances. Bees can do that as well. One of the most interesting things that I talk about in the book has to do with the touch, the tactile senses that they have. With some work done where scientists took sunflowers, which often have a strong UV versus visible nectar guide pattern on the flower and the same pedal on those external ray pedals, and they coded them like they were getting ready to look at them under a scanning electron microscope. They freeze-dried them and then put gold palladium, just a few coatings of those atoms on there, so you got rid of the color and any olfaction.

The only thing that was left were those tiny little ridges and grooves on the pedals. Bees were trained to, again, go after sugar water when they made the right choice. Lo and behold, they could detect those tiny differences on the flower petals. The colleagues that did that, Peter, Kevin up at Guelph in Canada, and Meredith Lane, basically had a nice little paper on this. The title of the paper was something like, "Can Bees Read Micro Braille?" The answer is yes.

Jeff:I keep going back to the small brain, but I'm just impressed that all of this was happening in that very small brain. It's easy for people, and especially non-beekeepers, to take that for granted and just look at that and say it's an insect. It's not processing anything. It's just a mini robot or a mini droid to use, much of today's parlance, just a little droid going about whatever its business, but to actually see that it's taken in that information and making choices, as you pointed out, is amazing.

Stephen:I would say most of the public is still stuck in the insect robot automaton mode. They think that everything that insects do is instinctual. There are instincts involved, but there's also behaviors that have to be learned or taught or experienced.

Jeff:Of course, humans have no instincts. It's all thought and all knowledgeable. Just kidding. Let's take this opportunity to take a quick break, and we'll be right back.

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Jeff:At this point, Steve, I think that bees probably some would argue would have a better memory than I do. It's amazing that so much is going on in that little package. One of the great and ancient observations of honey bees is their ability to make a perfect hexagon in their honeycomb. It's been studied, it's been philosophized, if that's a word, it's been thought about forever. Your book, you talk a little bit about how honeybees go about building honeycomb so perfectly and it's consistently perfect. Can you just give us a quick version of that discussion?

Stephen:I think it goes back to Aristotle, and then Mathematicians in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries argued about it. I think that most people think that bees are out there with their little rulers and protractors and measuring all those angles, 120 degrees, and all that stuff, but it's really interesting that some European colleagues, mainly Jürgen Tautz, T-A-U-T-Z, who's written some excellent honeybee books, was, I believe, the first one to figure out that, "No, wait a minute, this is the bees plus some physics and temperature."

It turns out that bees wax, at the temperature of the hive or a little bit hotter, goes into this semi-molten state. When bees are hanging in little festoons creating wax from the eight-paired wax glands under their abdomens, so they're passing off these little wax flakes, other bees are chewing them and adding them to little piles. This is something that in other insects, like termites, we call stigmergy. A little arch in the case of termites will start. Well, in the case of the bees, they're not making perfect hexagons.

What's happening is that you're getting these cells that start out cylindrical, and as they're against one another, they pop into a shape with those perfect angles. It's almost like blowing a froth of soap bubbles, like a kid with a little dish of soap solution and a straw blowing into it. If you look at those things very carefully, they pop into these perfect angles. That, to me, is really exciting. We see hexagonal patterns throughout nature in other animal architecture, like the polyps of corals and many others.

One cool thing you can do is, if you don't believe that the hexagon thing, get with your kids and take some clay and roll out some clay rolls and put them together, and then put a band around them and squeeze them. I guarantee you that as you press on them, you'll see them develop into hexagons in cross-sections. That's one fun thing you can do.

Kim:Steve, I want to bring this in because you're exactly right in terms of physics and gravity, those forces together, you'll see that same thing when you stack hay bales together, and they get a little bit wet, and then they dry, and then they sit for a while, and they assume a shape, and that shape is a hexagon, maybe not quite on the edges, but all those in the middle. The first time I saw that, I was in high school or something, and you do a double take. You say, "That's the biggest beehive I've ever seen," but of course, it's just a stack of hay bales. That makes sense. Yes, that's a good way to explain it.

Jeff:The other fascinating thing about honeycomb is that if you look at it through the sun and hold it up to the sunlight, the center of the cells on the backside are in the middle of the cell. The edges cross or come together in the middle of the cell on the other side. I'm not explaining that very well, but when beekeepers hold the cell up to the sunlight or any light, can see that. That's part of the same physics, I guess.


Kim:It's a perfect conservation of wax. It's using the least amount of wax to accommodate the greatest amount of space, as I understand it.

Stephen:Some Mathematicians have done that. It is the perfect storage shape for holding the most amount of honey while maintaining the greatest amount of rigidity and strength in the structure. These are great little engineers.

Jeff:Thanks for that sidetrack. I find it very fascinating. We've talked about the bees have the social learning, they can watch other bees and learn from that. What about their memory? They have to have fairly decent memory, or is it all by happenchance?

Stephen:No, they definitely have strong memories for shapes, flower shapes, geometric shapes. Typically, they'll remember things for up to four days, but it seems like in some cases they might remember things for their entire lifetime of four to six weeks. What amazed me recently, I forgot who did it, but some research that showed that, it's not natural for them, but they can recognize human faces. I guess there's a warning here. If you're a bad beekeeper, or you're bad to your bees, they'll see you coming and better watch out.

Kim:That's why I wear a veil.

Stephen:Wear a disguise.

Jeff:I was wondering about that when you're talking about social learning, whether they see me opening a hive next door, whether they'll say, "Oh, look at that, what's happening," and get ready based on watching the other-- Anyways, it doesn't matter. We're going up down the rathole.

Kim:Well, Steve, I'd like to just interrupt here for a second and bring in something else. You mentioned the memory of color. and you mentioned the memory of odor. If a bee finds a field of flowers that's purple, and it smells like clover, will that bee when it smells the odor of clover begin to look for it or sees the color of clover begin to look for it, or are they able to take half of that memory and apply it to an old memory, do you know?

Stephen:There is a lot of olfactory memory. Flower odors are really complex. I mentioned the raspberry one, but typically a rose scent or something might have dozens or even hundreds of different compounds. They might be picking out one or they could be picking out a suite of those. They obviously have a keen spatial memory. With the sun compass and their time sense, they can go out repeatedly to, let's say, an alfalfa patch or something day after day and find those rewarding flowers.

They're guided by the odor, they know the location, and then once they get really close, it's a combination of the color of the flower, the shape, and the scent as well.

Kim:Where does time come in on that trip that you just mentioned, or going back to that alfalfa field, does the amount of time it takes to get there play into this at all?

Stephen:A little bit, but mostly I was referring to, let's say a flower has blossoms on it that open typically between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning, and that's when the pollen and nectar is produced. The bees can figure that out. They remember through that keen time sense that they have that, oh, let's say alfalfa is opening at 9 o'clock and has nectar, so they're ready, they're getting it, and then other flowers may be opening in the afternoon, and they know to go to those during the afternoon as well.

Jeff:In your book, you talk about the bees' ability to create a mental map of their environment. There is more of a geospatial understanding of where they are, of their environment. Many times beekeepers are taught, well, they learn where to go based by the position of the sun and maybe gross landmarks, but is it a little bit more than that?

Stephen:Yes, it's a little bit, to this day, a little bit still controversial, but researchers like Randolph Mansell, particularly in Germany and others, do believe that for navigation purposes, that honeybees and certain other kinds of bees can form sort of a mental map for navigation in their environment. I mean, if you think about it, one honeybee colony controls a vast foraging area. I think honeybees are known to go out something like 14 kilometers, but in reality most of the foraging is done probably within just a few.

If you think about it in English units, then it's probably most of their foraging is happening within a mile or two of their nest, but go to Google Maps or think about your GPS and put your home in the middle of a circle with a radius of one, two, or three miles, and you can see, especially for such a small creature, something only about a centimeter long, what a vast, truly vast area that is that they have to navigate through and go out, find food, figure out how to get back, all the while trying to avoid hungry birds, lizards, and spider webs.

Jeff:And windshields.

Stephen:Don't get me started on that. The killing lanes for bees. We think about insecticides and herbicides and the perils of that, but we're killing billions of pollinators every year on the grills of our car and windshields. We don't think about the importance of that gunk on the windshield, when really it's billions of pollinator lives being wiped out.

Jeff:You start looking at that and think about it, it does become depressing. One of the questions I need to ask you, bees sleep, seems like all creatures sleep. How much do bees sleep, and when they sleep, do they dream?

Stephen:Yes. Well, we know they sleep thanks to another colleague who's a really fun guy, Barrett Klein, at the University of Wisconsin. They can spend 6 hours at night and maybe 10 hours during the day sleeping. They have characteristic sleep postures. First, there's kind of a wakeful type of sleep and their antennae are going like crazy. Second phase is kind of a light sleep, and they don't move their antennae as much, and the final one is they're quite quiet. They go into almost a rigid posture with no antenna movement.

You ask an intriguing question. I've been asked about that a lot. Do bees dream? Well, we don't really know. I'd like to think they do. Maybe they're dreaming about an especially rich flower patch, or maybe they're having nightmares about almost being grabbed by a crab spider and a flower or stuck in a spider web or something, and they barely got out. Certain scientists have found out that bees seem to have a memory replay, so in deep sleep, they might have a dreamlike experience, like non-REM, rapid eye movement, sleep in humans. Yes, we think they can sleep, and we think it's important for them, just as it is for us. Probably during those sleep stages, they're doing some memory formation.


Kim:It is. You got to wonder what a nightmare would be, and/or the other side of that equation, what would be a, "I just found a million acres of clover blooming ready to eat," It would be interesting to see that.

Jeff:You add that to the ability to learn from others. We didn't talk about it, but I assume if they can learn from watching other bees, they can learn from trial and errors, they can do mazes. In their dreams, do they reprocess that near-death experience and learn from it?


Jeff:I don't know.

Stephen:Yes, we don't know. It's really intriguing and fun to think about.

Jeff:Yes, it is. Do bees feel?

Stephen:I don't like to step into the squishy side of things, where we're-


Stephen:-lacking data. Some people, like Lars Chittka, maybe when you talk to him later on, he can get into that. He thinks that bees maybe experience something like pessimism or optimism. Maybe what Kim just said about, hey, I just found a holy grail of flowers, and now I have all this great nectar to bring back to the hive. I do like one experiment that he did, though, and I think it was quite clever. He and his students made robotic crab spiders. Crab spiders are sit-and-wait predators that blend in with the flower.

If you're a bee, you better watch out because they'll grab you and suck your juices out. He made these robotic spiders with foam pinchers. When a bee got too close in the lab, the fake spider would grab the bee and hold it for about 2 seconds, and then release it. In later tests, the bees were far more, what you'd have to say, almost anxious or wary, so they avoided those areas. Clearly they'd had a bad experience and they knew something about it. They didn't really like it. That's one thing.

Another researcher, Melissa Bateson, at Newcastle University, was trying to simulate a bear attack on a beehive. They shook the bees, and they also had some things where they were adding a bitter flavor, quinine, to the sugar water in what is called a proboscis extension response. I don't really have time to get into what that's about, but long story short, they had a bad experience when their cage or hive was shaken, and then their future behavior was as if they were, again, it's hard to pick a word, but anxious about that.


Stephen:Yes, wary.

Jeff:The thought about bees feeling, we suspect, or think they might dream, can develop some forms of anxiety or wariness, they can learn from past negative experiences, do they have any sense of self, any consciousness? Are they aware of that they're a bee? Can they recognize themselves in a mirror, I wonder?

Stephen:That's a great question. The mirror test is quite famous. I don't know how many of your listeners know about it, but basically animal psychologists would do things like, let's say, let's take a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee falls asleep, and you put a big red dot of paint on its forehead, and then the chimpanzee wakes up, and it is presented with a mirror. It looks at itself in the mirror, and it's like, "Oh my God, did I cut myself? Am I bleeding?" Sees that red spot.

There are quite a few animals that have been given this so-called mirror test. Bees don't do that. Quite surprisingly, a few ant species have been tested, and they seem to do it, but there was one experiment that I like to think about where it was done with bumblebees, and no bees get bigger as an adult. I mean, everything you ate as a kid results in your final and unvarying adult size and weight. You can have small, normal, and fat bumblebees in the same hive.

Bumblebees were trained to fly through this little slit to get at a sugar reward, artificial flower or something. The fat bees learned that they had to fly sideways and wiggle in just the right way to get through the slit; otherwise they wouldn't fit. That tells me that they had some keen sense of self. They knew that they were bigger than the average bee, let's say, and they had to turn in the right way to get through. They had a sense of their own size and the extension of their legs, that sort of thing.

Yes, I think bees are self-aware. We know that they are sentient. If you define sentience as the ability to feel pain, they have sensory cells called nociceptors or nociception, which is a fancy word meaning that they can detect noxious stimuli and turn away from them or get away from them. I'd like to think that they have a primitive form of consciousness, certainly nothing like ours. Let's face it, it is on a continuum. Philosophers and psychologists have been arguing about this for several thousand years. We don't even know if we're conscious, right?

Jeff:We're a hologram, aren't we?

Stephen:Yes, I think so, in a multiverse or something.

Jeff:[laughs] That's right.

Stephen:There are animals with literally no nervous systems. Marine sponges, weird worm-like parasites in the ocean called mesozoans. Without any total nervous system, I would say creatures like that don't have a consciousness. I think we should give bees the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy toward them and think about that, even though we can't ask them or perform the mirror test on them and get a response, that they might literally have some kind of primitive consciousness that is alien from what we feel. Again, back to that poppy seed-sized brain, pretty amazing for what it can do.

Jeff:As beekeepers, I have to believe that our listeners of this show listening to us today will be the beekeeper who looks at the bee and considers these things and believes it's true at some level, but having read your book and talking with you today and seeing that there is some scientific, I don't want to say, proof, but scientific research that strongly indicates that this is such the case of the bee's intelligence. They're learning. They're more than just animatrons, more than just insects.

Stephen:More than just dumb bugs.

Jeff:Yes. I think all of us beekeepers probably feel that, but to hear that it's actually documented and researched and coming out as being so is fantastic. I could spend the rest of the day on this, but I know our time is short. You've done a lot of other research on pollinators, and you mentioned that at the top of the show. What about the pollinators in that whole realm, and what can we do for pollinators? It's a part of the bee's thing too. What is catching your attention today?

Stephen:Thanks for asking. We obviously are losing pollinators like crazy. Some estimates that were done in several European countries indicate that we may have lost 20% or even 25% of our pollinators in just a couple of decades. That's pretty horrific considering that we rely upon bees and other pollinators for roughly a third of our global diet. Primarily it's habitat destruction or changing natural habitats that have been converted to urban cities, parking lots, even agriculture because let's face it, most modern agriculture is monoculture.

You think of the million or so colonies of honeybees that are trucked on 18-wheelers to the California almond orchards. Most commercial beekeepers today seem to be making their living from pollinator service contracts rather than making honey. Although I know it is a mixed bag. Certainly, insecticides, we have a perfect storm for bees. I was involved with trying to change some legislation in Colorado to get them to adopt a ban on neonic insecticides.

I think there are only two or three states in the US that have banned those, when in fact they've been banned in Europe for at least a decade. Those are pretty insidious because they're in seed coatings and lawn treatments, and they're systemic, which means that they get into the whole plant, and they poison the pollen and the nectar. Bees may not be killed outright, but it goofs up their navigation, and they can't find their way home, they die in the field, that kind of thing. Some of the things are really insidious.

I'm working now with a group of about six other scientists on a National Science Foundation and a USDA grant, and we're looking at doing DNA extractions of bee food, basically the pollen provisions in brood cells. Not exactly in our group, but other scientists have done it for honeybees too, and bee bread. Long story short, we now know that there are beneficial microbes that keep bees healthy and happy, just like humans need those.

There are bacteria and fungi in our food that we need.

That is maybe not so surprising. One thing our group has recently found out is something about herbicides that I never would have guessed. All of my professional career, I've heard herbicides are safe for bees, they kill weeds. I would always come back and say, "Yes, killing weeds is killing some bee food." The insidious part is that now we know that herbicides that are brought back on pollen that are fed to bee larvae are changing the microbiota, those beneficial bacteria, and let's say, yeast and other fungi in their guts, and they're making things difficult.

They actually can have serious mortality on larval bees, young bees in the nest, whether we're talking about honeybees, bumblebees, or solitary bees. That's something that was totally unexpected for me. You'll still hear representatives from the agrochemical industries that are talking about herbicides. "We've tested herbicides in the lab. They don't kill bees." I tend to agree. You can show that they don't kill adult bees, but those people are not looking at effects on, well, you're killing or potentially killing a lot of young bees back in the nest.

Jeff:We haven't even talked about the residuals of the herbicides in the wax and long-term effect.

Stephen:Just like, what I'd have to call, sick building syndrome, the beeswax takes in all of those many, many agrochemicals and slow release, and so you get a lot of sub-lethal effects that are-- You may not see an apron of dead bees out in front of your hive, but you may have a lot less productive bees, you may have a whole colony full of sick bees as well.

Jeff:Or nonproductive queens, queens that don't last throughout the season.

Stephen:Exactly, yes. All those things.

Jeff:Dr. Stephen Buchmann, we really appreciate you taking the time to be here today. This is a long show for us, but I think it's time well spent. I encourage our listeners to go out and find this book, What a Bee Knows,and read it. You'll gain a lot. You'll learn a lot. Steve, we'd like to invite you back at a future date to continue this conversation or talk about what other research you are doing.

Stephen:Sure, I'd love to. Maybe I'll come back and talk about my all-time favorite research, buzz pollination, and why we have nice big tomatoes.

Jeff:There you go. Thanks again for joining us today on Beekeeping Today.

Stephen:My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Jeff:That about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on Apple Podcasts or wherever you download and stream the show. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you'd like. You can get there directly from our website by clicking on the reviews along the top of any web page.

We want to thank our regular episode sponsors, Global Patties, Strong Microbials, and Betterbee for their longtime support of this podcast. Thanks to Blue Sky Bee Supply and Northern Bee Books for their generous support. Finally, and most importantly, we want to thank you, the Beekeeping Today Podcast listeners, for joining us on this show. Feel free to leave us questions and comments at leave a comment section under each episode on the website. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks a lot, everybody.

[00:48:22] [END OF AUDIO]

Dr. Stephen BuchmannProfile Photo

Dr. Stephen Buchmann

Melittologist, Professor, Author

Buchmann received his BS and MS in Biological Science from CSUF in southern CA and his Ph.D. in Entomology from UCDavis. He was a research entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Ctr. in Tucson, AZ from 1979 until 2000. He is an adjunct professor in the Entomology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Departments at the University of Arizona.

Stephen has co-authored 200 publications and ten books. His most recent books are "The Reason for Flowers" (Scribner) and "What a Bee Knows" from Island Press (DC). Buchmann's current research involves the study of buzz pollination, male mating strategies in native bees and investigations of brood cell microbiomes (beneficial bacteria and fungi) using amplicon sequencing and shotgun meta genomics.