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Cracking the Code of Animal Cognition: Discovering the Power of Tiny Bee Brains

Are you ready to unlock the secrets of animal intelligence? Well, buckle up because a career in animal cognition is like a rollercoaster ride of discovery. From the mind-blowing architecture of a beehive to the jaw-dropping spawning habits of salmon and the WOW-inducing communication through echolocation in whales, the animal kingdom is a treasure trove of intelligence waiting to be explored.

But what does it take to become a master in this field? Sure, a degree in biology or psychology is a good start, but in the world of neurocareers, it’s all about following your passion and being curious. Just look at Professor Lars Chittka, the bee whisperer himself. With over 20 years of experience in biology, he’s always been drawn to the little buzzing brains of insects, specifically bees. And with the support of the Queen Mary University of London, he founded the Research Centre for Psychology and created his own buzz of research on animal cognition.

Bees, you ask? Yes, bees! These tiny creatures may be small, but they pack a punch when it comes to intelligence. They can use tools, associate colors with rewards, recognize human faces and even count. That’s right, count! Imagine what we could do with that kind of computational power in a small package. And that’s exactly what Professor Chittka and his lab are trying to figure out — how do insects like bees compute information so efficiently with such low energy demands? It’s like trying to solve a mini-mystery every day.

But why bees, you may ask? Well, for starters, they’re easy to keep, have complex sensory systems, and their experiences can be controlled and studied. Plus, they’ve been used as model organisms for decades, making them the perfect specimens for animal cognition research. Want to know more about Professor Chittka and his research? Listen to the full interview with him on “The Mind of a Bee with Prof. Lars Chittka, PhD” Episode 11 of the Neurocareers podcast, where he dives deeper into the fascinating world of bees and their cognitive abilities.

So, are you ready to join Professor Chittka and his team on this exciting journey of discovery? Get ready to learn more about bees than you ever thought possible, and discover the limitless potential of animal cognition research. Trust us, it’s an adventure you don’t want to miss.

The Genius of the Beehive Mind

For centuries, the prevailing narrative, thanks to philosophers like Descartes, was that animals were nothing more than “animal machines” lacking minds or intelligence like humans. They were seen as simply responding to external stimuli without any internal mental processes. But the research on bees and other animals proves this idea to be far from the truth.

Bees, for example, have been found to have remarkable cognitive abilities, such as the ability to count, recognize human faces, use tools and even learn from one another. These capabilities demonstrate that bees have their own unique form of intelligence and learning. This understanding of animal cognition is leading to a shift in our perception of the animal kingdom as a whole and giving us valuable insights into the diversity and value of different forms of intelligence.

The Bee-yond Belief Findings

You’ve likely heard the term “hive mind” to refer to group decision-making and know it’s connected to the complex and advanced group dynamic of bees. But what else do you know about bees? Many people are not familiar with everything bees are capable of. Dr. Chittka shared some important findings about bees that demonstrate their intelligence and advanced computational abilities. It’s been known for many years that bees have a high capacity to memorize, learn and navigate. This is observed easily in their patterns of leaving the hive, seeking out nectar, learning which flowers are good sources, and remembering how to go back. But, more recently, scientists have discovered that bees can do more than simple association-based learning. They can also:

  • Count: One experiment in Dr. Chittka’s lab used identical landmarks to test their ability to count. By training them to count a few landmarks, they then added and removed them to see where the bees would go. They found that bees could indeed keep count of what they passed when seeking out the reward.

  • Recognize human faces: A simple experiment was set up to see if they could recognize human faces. A bit of nectar was placed in front of one photo of a face to train the bees to go there. Then, they set up multiple photos to see where the bees went — results showed they picked the correct face with 80% certainty.

  • Manipulate objects using a simple tool: Another experiment in Dr. Chittka’s lab showed that bees could learn to use simple tools, such as pulling a rope to access the desired reward.

  • Spontaneously learn and improve: One experiment showed that bees could learn from each other. After witnessing other bees roll a ball, for example, they could follow the same thing. More than that, though, they would improve the system and make it better.

The “Bee”havioral Revolution

Bees are small creatures with a simple nervous system, yet they manage these complex behaviors. Bees have just under one million nerve cells — a human brain has 85 billion. But bigger brains don’t always mean increased intelligence. In fact, a section of a bee’s brain is denser with nerve cells and computational power than the same size taken from a human brain. Bee's brains have widely branched nerve cells, with each cell having up to 10,000 contacts with other cells via synapses. If we assume that bees’ brain cells can change and learn through neuroplasticity, there is a huge amount of intelligence and cognitive ability in their small brains. These findings, along with the other published research papers from Dr. Chittka’s lab, just start scratching the surface of what these amazing insects can do.

The Buzz About Future Applications

Understanding the intelligence and abilities of bees is, without a doubt, a fascinating field of study in and of itself. But it’s part of a larger trend in the field of animal cognition that’s bringing an important shift to what we know about the animal kingdom. The research now shows us that animals are intelligent in their own right — not just as lesser humans, but in new and diverse ways. The way they gather and process information or stimuli is different, as are their outward behaviors and learning capabilities. Understanding animal cognition as unique and worthy leads us to two valuable outcomes:

• Greater understanding of the human experience through comparison of different models and modes of intelligence, learning, and understanding.

• Increased harmony between animals and humans — the more we understand the unique and valuable differences, the better we can live together on this planet we share.

The Hive Mind: A Career in the Making

Dr. Chittka’s journey into the world of bee cognition began with nothing more than curiosity and a desire to learn more. And he’s been able to make a career out of it, making important contributions to the scientific community and working with many PhD candidates and post-doctorates in his lab who share the same curiosity and passion. His advice to those interested in the field of animal cognition is simple: let your curiosity guide you. Find what you’re passionate about and go in that direction. Dr. Chittka’s lab team made the conscious decision to be there, not just following what’s popular or seen as valuable in the sciences, but because of their passion and curiosity.

In conclusion, animal cognition is a growing field with many exciting opportunities for those with a passion for understanding the unique and diverse ways in which animals think and learn. So, don’t be afraid to follow your curiosity and passions, and if that leads you to the field of animal cognition, it’s an exciting place to be. To learn more about Dr. Chittka’s work, visit his lab website, and don’t forget to read his recent book, “The Mind of a Bee.” Using his decades of research to guide him, Dr. Chittka takes readers into the mind of an individual bee, exploring their remarkable cognitive abilities. This book shows readers characteristics of bees you may have never realized before — their intelligence, personalities, cognitive abilities, emotions, and more.

Finally, listen to the full interview with Dr. Chittka on Episode 11, “The Mind of a Bee,” of the Neurocareers podcast. While you’re there, listen to some of the other episodes to learn more about careers, opportunities, and fascinating research in the field of neuroscience.

In short, bees are proving to be one of the most fascinating and intelligent species to study, with a lot of potential for future applications in neuroscience. So, next time you see a bee buzzing around, don’t underestimate its brainpower, it might just surprise you!


This article is based on Neurocareers: Doing the Impossible! Podcast. Episode: “The Mind of a Bee with Prof. Lars Chittka, PhD.” Hosted by Milena Korostenskaja, PhD. Published by The Institute of Neuroapproaches, 8/7/2022.

The article is brought to you by Milena Korostenskaja, PhD a neurocareer coach at The Institute of Neuroapproaches, where we provide neuroscience education and career coaching to everyone interested in establishing successful careers in neuroscience and neurotechnologies.

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