How clever can insects be

The special intelligence of bees and bumblebees : Maximum in the mini-brain

At the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin - more precisely: "zu Berlin" - the world is still in order. Some very smart and intelligent people are always standing around somewhere talking, in English. If one of them needs something - coffee, a taxi, the newspaper from the day before yesterday - someone is there immediately. Despite 30 degrees outside, a cool breeze blows through the high, wood-paneled rooms enclosed by thick walls. Lars Chittka sinks into a deep armchair. His thesis that bees are intelligent and even have a kind of consciousness earned him a year in this glamorous place.

Message on a t-shirt

His black t-shirt has a Darwin quote printed on it, in which the scholar confesses, among other things, that he hates himself and bees (because he had noticed that one of his theories about these animals must be wrong). Obviously it has already had a few spin cycles in the machine and does not necessarily match the interior. When Chittka first came to Berlin, in the western sector as a biology student in the wild eighties, it was more due to the subculture that also took place in completely different rooms. Just because you needed something as a project and you had been told in Göttingen that there was actually only one research group in question, he began to research bees at that time. He still does that today. He is one of the world's leading scientists in his field, actually as a professor in London, but currently as a fellow in Grunewald.

One of the amenities he enjoys here is “this incredible library service,” says Chittka, hands clasped on the neck. A book that the busy beehive got for him from employees here within a few days comes from a Francois Huber. The blind Swiss private scholar described something in it over 200 years ago that, for Chittka, is proof that bees can not only learn a lot, but that their intellectual abilities are far greater than they would have ever been expected to be. With the help of his servant and his wife, Huber observed, among other things, how honeybees continue to build their normally flat honeycombs 90 degrees around the corner as soon as a pane of glass is attached to the side of the nest where the honeycomb should actually end. Nobody knows how they do it, how they notice the change and then reschedule in such a precise way. Having such a “plan” and being able to adapt it - foreseeing the consequences of one's own actions - is a sign of awareness for Chittka.

Bumblebees look for solutions to problems

He believes that he sees evidence of such flexible, forward-looking behavior not only in those colonies that are often referred to as "superorganisms", but also in individuals of honey bees, wild bees, wasps and bumblebees. With the latter, which also belong to the group of bees, he and his currently somewhat neglected colleagues at Queen Mary University do many of their experiments. Many such experiments show that the behavior of these animals is far beyond pure stimulus-reaction patterns and simple learning processes.

Bumblebees, for example, not only learn that the yellow potty has the sugar solution because they have had several opportunities to test the full yellow and empty red pots. You will also learn the technique of pulling a nectar vessel on a string from under a pane of glass (see illustration). And when you are faced with such a difficult challenge as “nectar covered by a pane of glass”, try to see how others can get the food. “It's a cultural phenomenon,” says Chittka. They can even deduce what is right - that is, feed - indirectly from observations, "so they also show behaviors that they haven't learned at all," says Chittka.

Bees live "in a world that is strange to us"

Are these signs of intelligence and awareness? That is "also a question of definition". However, tasks in which bees often do better than some completely normal people - such as spatial orientation, creating categories, understanding symbols, learning rules - are part of any reasonably serious intelligence test. In fact, the discussion about what bees or other animals can do as well as or perhaps even better than humans even gets on Chittka's nerves. Because bees are not human. They have completely different nervous systems and can perceive other things, such as magnetic fields or polarized light. “You live in a world that is alien to us,” says Chittka.

The fact that bees in particular repeatedly show abilities that one would not trust a brain the size of a speck of dust or - in the case of large species - a pin head at most, has several implications for Chittka. On the one hand, it shows that the capabilities of a nervous system do not grow with its size, but rather with its tasks. In contrast to other insects, for example, bees have to be able to orientate themselves extremely well in order to find and find feeding places and to be able to return to the nest again and again. They have to optimize their routes and integrate all possible information for this - from the energy expenditure for a route to the quality and quantity of a feed source. Compared to a mosquito, for example, which does not have to be able to do much more than identify victims, mating partners and places to lay eggs, bees have a much more demanding life. On the other hand, if one understood the processes in the mini beehive, one could potentially develop hardware and programs that also enable highly complex computing power in extremely little space and with extremely little energy. That's one reason Chittka's work is funded by the UK Engineering Council, among others.

"Incredible" navigation performance

While walking through the green Grunwald, Chittka points to a "bee hotel". It consists of a lot of holey wood protected by a small roof. Solitary wild bees can lay their eggs there and supply them with pollen and nectar supplies. And everyone finds their nest again and again, even after kilometers of excursions, even if the next two millimeters next to it looks exactly like this. "These are unbelievable achievements and it is quite possible that from a certain point it was even more economical not to rely on individual circuits that were hardwired and inherited in the nervous system," says Chittka, but on a system that is significantly "more open " be. Perhaps this happened very early in evolution and one of the reasons why animal life suddenly developed so rapidly a good 500 million years ago.

There is not much time left to watch the hotel entrance. Chittka has to go to a meeting. An older man speaks to him beforehand. He complains that the grass is so high here in the park. "In the past, everything was always nicely mowed." The bee professor doesn't think that's so bad, also because the meadows provide food for the bees from the hotel. He also doesn't mind that the man obviously thought he was the park gardener. But that would certainly not have happened to a bee with its pronounced ability to recognize patterns.

On Sunday, May 27th, 2018, at 8 pm, Lars Chittka will give his lecture “Can bees think?” At the Wissenschaftskolleg. Information and registration at:


Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page