Lars Chittka suddenly appears on the Zoom screen, and after watching me fumble for a few moments, advises me on how to start the recorder to tape our interview focusing on his recently released Princeton University Press book, “The Mind of a Bee.”

And while we’re both mindful of the new communication technology that lets a New Jersey writer, who is also an amateur beekeeper, chat face to face with an international known bee researcher, who at the time was in Mexico, we are also mindful of the communication skills of bees — a creature whose abilities challenge what is generally perceived about them.

For example, bees travel miles, collect information, find their way back to the hive, and then broadcast a type of news flash that informs the hive not only about food sources but their location and distance — all within the dark of the hive.

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Lars Chittka is the author of 'The Mind of a Bee,' a new release from Princeton University Press.

The bee also, Chittka argues, has a mind and “an awareness of the world around it and of its own knowledge, including autobiographic memories; an appreciation of the outcomes of its own actions; and the capacity for basic emotions and intelligence.”

In his engaging and friendly (yet small fonted) 260-page book, the German-born scientific director and co-founder of the Research Centre for Psychology at Queen Mary, University of London, immediately sets to change readers’ minds by putting them in the bee’s suit: “You’re all hard shell, soft core. You also have an inbuilt chemical weapon. You have 360-degree vision, and your eyes process information faster than any human’s. All your nutrition comes from flowers, each of which provides only a tiny meal, so you often have to travel many miles to and between flowers — and you’re up against thousands of competitors to harvest the goodies. The range of colors you can see is broader than a human’s and includes ultraviolet light as well as sensitivity for the direction in which light waves oscillate. You have sensory superpowers, such as a magnetic compass. You have protrusions on your head, as long as an arm, which can taste, smell, hear, and sense electric fields. And you can fly.”

Chittka then focuses on how bees “talk” in the hive, which he compares to a 100-story windowless skyscraper, as packed as a rush hour bus, but with individuals scurrying up and down the walls.

“Much of the bees’ communication works by pheromones and by electrostatic signals bees can generate, which they sense with mechanosensory hairs,” he writes, adding that honey bees — perhaps the most familiar of numerous types of bees — also communicate using symbolic movements or “a strange motor display called the dance language.”

He says that other bees decipher the dancer’s language by touching her throughout her dance “by putting its feelers on the dancer’s abdomen and holding them there while the dancer turns and shimmies.”

He then asks the reader to put the above in an evolutionary perspective and “imagine your life depends on how well you could sense and interpret the dancer’s movements.”

“I just feel that the number of discoveries has exponentially accelerated over the past few years. I don’t think that it has been seen by public,” he says about choosing to devote the time to writing such a book. “There is a general ‘buzz’ about the bees in the media. Bees are kind of a mascot to nature preservation. (And) people are not aware of the mind and the thinking of bees.”

Chittka says that most of the work on the book was done in his lab and next to the source of new materials. “The challenge was where to stop.”

There was also a temptation to deep dive into the history of bee observation, and in the book Chittka brings in the human story of researchers who centuries ago developed a keen understanding of bee behavior without the benefit of a research institute and scientific tools. One such individual was blind.

Chittka says elsewhere that while he was a biology student, his studying bees was more happenstance than a grand design.

“I moved to Berlin in the 1980s because of the culture and nightlife, and, being a biology student, I also needed to find a lab to do a project. It just so happened that the most interesting lab at that university was working on honeybee learning, so that’s where I ended up.”

During our conversation, he said that eventually he and other students would sip whiskey, postulate, and concoct experiments to determine if bees could count (they can), be taught (they could), and to do tasks such as pulling stings (they did).

“It is remarkable to see such things in the lab,” he says.

It is also remarkable to find such equally remarkable information in the book.

For example, at the center of this mainly female community is the queen. But despite her regal name, this queen exists mainly to serve the hive.

Chittka says that honey bee queens and workers are genetically indistinguishable, but the worker bees feed the queen larvae large quantities of a special “designer diet,” — aka royal jelly.

And while all bee larvae are initially fed the jelly by nurse bees, all but the future queens are weaned from it, producing “striking morphological, behavioral and physiological differences between these castes” — the main one being that the queen will spend her one or two years of life producing 2,000 eggs per day and never leaving the hive.

But first, she has to earn the privilege. As Chittka notes, “Upon emergence from their pupae, new honey bee queens engage in a series of deadly duels with rival queens.”

The winner then “will leave the home for one to five mating flights, during which she visits drone congregating areas used solely for mating, which might be several kilometers form the hive, where hundreds of drones typically wait. Queens will mate with an average of 12 drones in flight; the drones die shortly afterward, since the explosive ejaculation ruptures the everted genitals. A mated queen then returns to her native hive; egg laying begins soon after, and she will typically not leave the colony again unless a new queen is raised in the subsequent year, in which case the old queen leaves the nest with a large swarm of workers to relocate” — to a place found by the scout bees and discussed within the hive with those selected to accompany the queen.

But what about the life of those other bees? “Sterile honey bee workers typically live only for weeks, during which they engage in a series of specialties, among them cleaning out cells, tending brood or the queen, constructing wax combs, guarding the nest entrance, and foraging.”

It’s the foraging and looking for flowers that also yields some additional remarkable information.

For example, Chittka tells us to reject the hypothesis that insect color vision evolved in adaptation to particular classes of objects — such as, in bees’ cases, flowers.

Instead, he notes, “Flower colors adapted to insect color vision, not the other way around. In this sense, insect pollinators painted the world. Before plants appointed hungry insects as pollen carriers, the terrestrial living environment was largely green (leaves) and brown (tree bark).”

Then, he writes, when a bee visits flowers, an electric charge causes the flower to become temporarily more positively charged. The result is that “this temporary ‘electrical imprint’ on the flower tells other bees that the flower has been recently visited, and is therefore not worth visiting again, since nectar takes some time to replenish after a bee has drained a flower.”

When asked a direct question about his relationship bees, Chittka reveals something remarkable in another way. He is allergic to bees. “There seems to be a higher number of people working with bumble bees getting allergies. The trap that many people fall into is that there is a cavalier attitude with bees that until you get allergic. In the first 10 years working with bumble bees, I wouldn’t bother wearing much protective gear, and I got stung a lot. It didn’t end well. I had to be driven to the hospital and I had to stay at the emergency room. Every year one experiment could have been my last.”

However, he says, there is a drug you regularly get. Now a bee sting “is like a mosquito bite.”

Allergies aside, the point at the heart of the book that “feeling and consciousness and actual thinking are going on” in the mind of the bee and that such has “ethical implications for how we treat insects.”

In a Psychology Today interview he says, “Few people are aware that we are currently seeing the beginnings of a new Copernican revolution — the realization that human minds are not the only ones and that truly ‘alien minds’ are around us on our home planet. This includes the minds of strange creatures like the octopus and, you guessed it, those of bees.”

At the close of his book, Chittka tells readers that we need to respect bees and “accept the possibility of subjective experience.” But in the final moments of the Zoom session, Chittka sums up the experience of working with one particular bee with one deceptively simple word: “magic.”

'The Mind of a Bee' in Three Brief Excerpts

London-based scientist and bee researcher Lars Chittka shares a few thoughts about why the general public should learn more about bees through the following excerpts:

One is that they are fascinating in themselves. As he writes, “Much of the workings of the bee’s mind can be understood only when one considers the natural challenges of the constantly changing market economy in which it must operate. The pressures of operating in this setting are often expressed in terms of physical performance.”

For example, he notes, “a bee can carry its own body weight in nectar and/or pollen; it may need to visit 1,000 flowers and fly 10 kilometers to fill its honey stomach only once; and 100 such trips may be required to generate a teaspoon of honey. Less appreciated are the mental efforts required along the way: in visiting 1,000 flowers, the bee has to work out 1,000 floral ‘puzzle boxes’ whose mechanics can be as complicated as operating a lock, and no two flower species are quite alike in the mechanics that have to be learned to gain access to their contents.”

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'The Mind of a Bee' by London-based scientist and bee researcher Lars Chittka.

Additionally, while flying through a flower meadow, a “bee is constantly bombarded with stimuli (color patterns, scent mixtures, electric fields) from multiple flowers of several species per second, requiring the bee to pay attention only to the most relevant stimuli and to suppress the rest. Between visits to 1,000 flowers, the bee may have to reject 5,000 other flowers that either are unfamiliar or have been found to be poorly rewarding, or only rewarding at a different time of day. While foraging, the bee also has to overcome the frustration and the starvation risk of finding dozens of empty flowers in a row that a competitor has recently emptied, and she must decide when to cut her losses and explore for an alternative food source.”

Chittka points out that while the bee visits several thousand flowers a day it does something humans do not expect. “Learning rules is not typically regarded as within the reach of an insect mind, but as we will soon discover, the pressures of operating in the flower supermarket have given rise to such intelligent operations in the bee. What’s more, while figuring out all these contingencies, she also has to dodge attacks from predators, and remember and avoid flower patches where predation risk is especially high. She has to keep track of the location of her home no matter how convoluted her flight path, and in the face of wind gusts that might displace her far from her established route.”

Another thought is the direct connection between bees and humans. “Bees, and the sweets they provide, have been with humans right from the beginning of our evolutionary history. Our closest relatives among the apes consume honey and use tools for its extraction from wild bee colonies. It is therefore eminently plausible that the earliest hominids did the same.”

In fact, prehistoric cave painters on several continents “immortalized the raiding of bee colonies, and the members of many extant hunter-gatherer tribes extract honey from multiple species of wild bees. Honey is the most carbohydrate-rich energy drink that nature has to offer, and some scientists now believe that the practice of efficient honey collection might have fueled the evolution of our energy-hungry brains.”

But, he continues, “as many creative persons will testify, sugar is not all that’s required to fuel the generation of bright ideas. And indeed bees provided for inebriation, too: mead, made from fermented honey, is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages. Mead has been consumed for at least 9,000 years, in countries as far apart as China, Finland, Ethiopia, and pre-Hispanic Mexico.”

But perhaps one of the most intellectually stimulating reasons to learn more about bees is the vast body of scholarly work about their behavior. As the researcher admits, “During research for this book, I have enjoyed browsing the historic literature on the topic.”

That includes the “inspiring story of the African American scientist Charles Turner (1867–1923), who performed pioneering experiments on the psychology of bees and other insects while working against impossible odds, as a high school teacher without access to scientific laboratories or libraries.”

Chittka sweetens his point by writing that “some of this historical literature is so little known by today’s scientists that unearthing it is as exciting as if these discoveries had been made in one’s own laboratory. Throughout the book, I have provided a historical context to more recent findings, and we will see that many seemingly contemporary ideas about the minds of bees had already been expressed, in some form, over a century ago.

“Since our scientific forebears were often also excellent writers, with styles less dry and jargony than many of today’s scholars, I will give you tastes of these historic writings, in the hope that this will inspire you to explore the original works” — and to join him “on this journey into the minds of bees.”


The Mind of a Bee, Lars Chittka, 260 pages, $29.95, Princeton University Press.

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