Where would we be without bees? These hard workers are the most important part of our ecosystem, helping pollinate the Earth's plants and keep the circle of life moving. We already know that these busy creatures are skilled at working together quite intricately to get their jobs done. But it turns out they have even higher levels of intelligence than it seems.
Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at Queen Mary University of London, has been studying bee sensory systems and cognition for 30 years, and has become one of the world's biggest experts in the subject. "We now have suggestive evidence that there is some level of conscious awareness in bees – that there is a sentience, that they have emotion-like states," he says. "Our work and that of other labs has shown that bees are really highly intelligent individuals. That they can count, recognise images of human faces and learn simple tool use and abstract concepts." According to Chittka, these tiny creatures have the ability to feel, plan, and imagine things - and he conducted several experiments to test just how clever they are.
In one of the several experiments Chittka tried, bees were trained to fly to a specific food source, passing three identical landmarks along the way. "After they had reliably flown there, we either increased the number of landmarks over the same distance or decreased it." And although the distance between the starting point and the food source remained the same, the bees landed earlier when the landmarks were placed closer together. Similarly, the bees landed later when the distance between the landmarks was increased. "So they were using the number of landmarks to say: ah ha, I’ve flown far enough, this is a good place to land," Chittka concluded. Since the landmarks were identical, the researcher understood that bees weren't waiting to recognize a particular one before deciding to land - rather, they were counting them. "They really could get the solution only by counting the number of landmarks."
Bees really are sharp creatures with sophisticated thought processes, which enable them to figure out ways to work more cleverly and efficiently. "It's an internal modelling of 'how will I get to the desired outcome?', rather than just trying it out," Chittka says. We have to say, we're glad we can rely on these tiny beings when it comes to preserving our ecosystem.