How smart are bees?

Can bees think? I have asked a number of beekeepers if the bees attack them when they harvest the honey. Often they have told me that the bees know that they love and respect them and do not show hostility to them, that they rarely get stung. Could this be true? Are bees aware of their surroundings other than where the flowers, hives and other related environmental elements are?


The way beekeepers have expressed their concern and sadness about the death of colonies of bees almost as much as other pet owners do when their pets are sick or at risk, show their love for bees.

Therefore a recent study about a group of bees who have resisted the Varroa mite that is killing them is a welcomed ray of hope for beekeepers. After all, bees are a pretty amazing insect as far as insects go, in my opinion. We rely on bees to pollinate just about everything that needs pollination, around the world and pollination means that we have food to eat.

The good news is that researchers have found a group of wild bees in the Ithaca, New York area that seems to have developed a genetic resistance to this killing mite.

Alexander Mikheyev, a professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and his cohorts at Cornell University have conducted a rare and interesting study.

They have compared the DNA taken from bees in the Ithaca area in 1977 which have been stored in a museum, with DNA collected in 2010 using a new analysis tool that is especially designed to test degraded or old DNA.

It seems that the group of bees in the Ithaca area were attacked and suffered from the mites the same as other bees during the 1990’s, but were able to recover and are thriving. What the scientists discovered what that the Ithaca bees developed a genetic resistance to the mites. While more research needs to be conducted, it shows promise for the survival of bees. (Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology – OIST. )

But, do bees recognize their keepers as some beekeepers have told me? Can bees tell if their keepers really love and respect them? Most people who study bees know how a bee will come back to the hive and do a sort of wiggle-waggle dance to communicate to the other bees where and how much food the bee has found. For the most part, people think that insects function purely by instinct.

However, an interesting experiment recounted in the book “The Parrots Lament” by Eugene Linden (ISBN: 0-525-94476-1) tells about an experiment conducted by ecologist James Gould on Carnegie Lake in Princeton, New Jersey.

Gould brought some bees and flowers to the middle of a lake in a rowboat and then later, another group of bees were brought to a feeder by the shore. Each group of bees went back to the hive and did their “dance.” However, few bees believed that there was food in the middle of a lake while many bees flocked to the food near the shore. This illustrates that at some level, even bees have the ability to make a judgment about their environment. They made a choice based on their knowledge that pollen is not found in the middle of a lake while it is found on land.

In one of his papers, Gould states, “Other experiments suggest that recruits, having attended a dance in the hive specifying the distance and direction of a food source, can evaluate the “plausibility” of the location without leaving the hive; this suggests a kind of imagination.”

In other words the bees felt that the “dancing” bees, who were telling them to go to the lake, were batty! They made a conscious decision. They made a choice. No matter how you look at it, making a choice involves cognitive ability,  knowledge of the past, present and future. The bees had to realize that from experience, food is not found on water but is found on land, and this illustrates episodic memory.

We know that many if not all animals have episodic memory, is it possible that insects have it too? If they do then could it be possible that bees do recognize and accept their keepers who love them and do not consider them a threat?

This is certainly something interesting to think about.

5 thoughts on “How smart are bees?

  1. As an animal behaviorist I continue to study all animals. One of the things that is really amazing is plant neurology. I may post some material about that at some point. It seems that there is strong evidence that plants have “families” that the mother plant cares for and that some plants can “think.”


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