Individual personality in bees? Animal consciousness? Cool research…

November 19th, 2010  |  Published in Just for fun

Animal Behaviour Journal cover

Animal Behaviour Journal cover

Do honey bees have personality? They are certainly charismatic. We often chat with our clients about the personality of their hives. One honey bee hive in the South End of Boston are super busy bees, and seemingly ignore anyone and everything around them. They just focus on their somewhat unique mission – to collect more and more pollen. This South End hive has the “pollen hoarding” trait. No…not like the show (although we’d totally watch an episode of Hoarders: Honey Bees!). These girls fill the hexagonal wax cells up with pollen – golden, orange, red, yellow, and light brown – used as a protein source for their diet. One hive in Gloucester, along with another hive in Cambridge, are more honey hoarders. They just cannot produce enough honey, which is a true delight for their hive owners! Other hives, such as one in Wenham and one in Medford, display a unique jumping behavior that I really have not seen in other hives. These differences could be due to their local ecology – some areas have more available pollen and nectar than others – or their genes.

If we focus in on one individual bee, does she have unique behavior from her sisters? (As a side note, beekeepers talk mostly about females because the boys do nothing but eat and have sex…they’re pretty much functionally useless!) Does one adult have a different personality from another? While we still don’t know much about this topic in honey bees. However, a new research paper in this month’s issue of the journal Animal Behavior indicates that bumble bees do *not* have individual personalities.

This research team (Helene Muller, Heiko Grossmann, and Lars Chittka at Queen Mary University of London) studied foraging preferences of individual bumble bees, and compared them to the preferences of their full sisters. Their design involved releasing bumble bees into a box with artificial flowers of varying colors, and comparing the time to first approach and duration of total stay on each flower. If individual bees showed differences in these measures, then this would suggest different personalities in bumble bees.

Fascinatingly, the researchers conclude no evidence of individual personality in bumble bees, despite the heroic statistical tests used to analyze their data. This study is unique in that it makes a step forward with regard to what we know about animal consciousness and cognition. How do we know if our pets are looking at us thoughtfully, and behaving with intent? Are bugs really just like little robots, operating from fixed-action patterns deeply ingrained in their DNA? These questions are very difficult to answer. Since we can’t simply ask a honey bee what she is thinking about, or if she is thinking at all, we rely on research studies like this one from Muller, Grossmann, and Chittka. Assuming bumble bees are similar in their cognitive processes to honey bees, it seems as though our honey bees are either little robots, or are aspects of the greater “super-organism”, whereby individual behavior does not matter nearly as much as that of the group. Pretty neat, right?!

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