There, There, the Insects Feel You

Are insects conscious beings, asks a new study. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Are insects conscious beings, asks a new study. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A recent survey suggests that, for most of us who have ever had a pet companion, it’s a no-brainer that mammals and birds are emotional creatures, sharing emotions with multiple species and not just their own. Yet despite the thousands of YouTube videos and hundreds of recent scientific studies presenting easily accessible evidence and examples, not everyone thinks so. It was only in 2012 that scientists finally agreed that nonhuman animals are conscious beings. It has only just been discovered that dogs display immensely complex, human-like emotions like jealousy, and that cows express positive emotions through the whites of their eyes. But what about insects?

A fantastic example of an insect emotion experiment was carried out on our all-important flower loving friends, honeybees. As just discussed, emotions influence our perceptions and behavior. So imagine that your house has just been ransacked by burglars and you are feeling shocked, upset, and really, really, REALLY angry. You’re so mad, in fact, that despite your friends trying to do and say everything possible to cheer you up, you feel so pessimistic that you simply see the downside in everything. In fact, you’re so upset that even your favorite food seems totally unappetizing.

 Well, this is exactly what happened with the bees. The poor guys were shoved into a vortex (a machine used to vigorously mix chemicals) for one minute to simulate a badger attack on their hive and presumably cause them to feel complete and utter bee rage. The bees were then presented with different solutions containing different proportions of two smelly chemicals: octanone, which the bees had been trained to associate with a yummy sugary treat, and hexanol, which they had been trained to associate with a bitter nasty taste.

Bees that had been shaken became pessimistic, glass-half-empty characters that were more likely to react to the nasty smell in the mixtures and recoil rather than being attracted to the yummy smell—a result of presumably being pretty irritated. Unshaken bees, on the other hand, remained their more optimistic, glass-half-full selves—and were more likely to see the mixtures as half-appetizing, as opposed to half-disgusting. Moreover, there were emotionally relevant changes in neurotransmitter levels in the shaken bees, changing levels of serotonin and dopamine, for example.
Scientifically, the act of shaking the bees can be interpreted as having created an internal neurological state that affected their subsequent behavior—all associated with changes in brain chemistry. This implies that agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases.
More on this topic on Quartz here.

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