Brain in Honey Bees & Humans

A Talk By Professor Robert Pickard

This was an open talk, kindly organised by the Cambridgeshire Beekeepers Association, in which Professor Robert Pickard was invited to share his knowledge on how the brain of the honey bee works, and to explore any similarities and differences between theirs and that of humans.

Here, I will attempt to share with you all the fascinating details he had shared with us, but please bear with me as I am not an expert in biology or, more specifically, neurobiology.

Highlights of The Session

The Evolution of Modular Organisms

For those not already familiar with neuroscience and the evolution of the brain, he gave a very simple overview on how brains have evolved in all creatures in relation to the evolution of their bodies. Original forms, such as that of the jellyfish, have all key functions (ingesting and expelling) concentrated in a radial centre and so all control is also localised in the centre. With evolution, lateral growth emerges, and organisms such as worms start to appear. This means that the mouth (entry) and anus (exit) of the animal require control to be split between these ends.

Photo: Left – Organisms with bi-lateral symmetry have most sense organs concentrated at the two ends. Right – Bi-lateral versus modular organisms. Note in the bee, the antennae are modified legs.

In modular organisms, where bees and humans happen to belong, we observe metamerism, meaning the somatites (sense organs and their localised “brains”) are concentrated in various sections, each specialised in different functions. For example, in the diagram on the next page, you can see the three sections of the bee: (a) 1st segment specialised on ingestion (mouth and antennae) (b) 2nd segment specialised in movement (legs) and (c) 3rd segment, specialised in excretion (abdomen, anus). In spite of the similarities in our modular construction, it is worth noting that the earliest specimen of a developed bee was dated at 26 million years ago, while the earliest specimen of a still developing human was dated at only 7 million years ago. We have several more years before we can understand or even remotely exhibit the characteristics of these superorganisms!

How Honey Bees Sense Gravity

A very interesting example of a sensory organ that bees have are their gravity hair. These hair are free to move with the pull of gravity and so, depending on their orientation relative to the bee’s body, a honey bee is able to know if it is descending (or falling) or ascending while flying. These sensors are essential for bees to “activate” and actually use their wings. Professor Pickard was once asked by NASA what he thought would happen if they sent bees into space, to which he replied “They will not move a (wing) muscle”. Lo and behold, when bees were taken to zero gravity, even when tossed in space, their wings were firmly stuck to their sides.

Detecting the orientation of the gravity hairs can tell a bee if it is falling.

True Altruism in Honey Bees

A major difference between bees and humans is their altruistic behaviour that is engrained in their brains in a way we humans do not yet posses. Take for example, the bees fanning at the entrance of the hive. These bees are returning foragers that had been frustrated trying to get back and so will spread the Nasonov pheromone by fanning, to alleviate other bees from the same frustration. Even more fascinating is that they strength of the pheromone is proportional to the level of frustration these bees experienced when they were returning.

How Honey Bees Share Location Details With Others

“Honey Bees have the ability to communicate a true bearing”

Professor Robert Pickard

Professor Pickard also touched upon the very entertaining waggle dance. Apart from humans, bees are the only other creatures with the ability to offer directions symbolically. However, they have the incredible ability of being aware of true bearings. What does this mean though? It means that when a bee finds a rich source of nectar and shares its location with the others, it does not share direction, but a geographical point. And so, it does not matter what route she has taken, or what route the other bees will take, they will still be able to reach the exact same location. This is even more astonishing when it comes to selecting a site for a new hive, as the location does not even exist yet!

In a light-hearted joke, he also emphasised how important the control of language is in such a developed society. In humans, females may not be able to read a map as well as males, but they have certainly shown greater mastery in controlling and using language. Could this be a sign for the future?

Photo: A bee before and after its head is shaved, in preparation for drilling and adding micro-electrodes that will monitor brain activity.

Honey Bees Can Manipulate Their Genes Using Food

What makes honey bees so extraordinarily advanced, compared to other organisms and especially humans, is their ability to manipulate their genes, simply through food. A perfect example of this is their ability to extend the life span of a worker bee from 7 weeks to several months for winter. Similarly, a female selected to become a Queen will have a life span of even longer, in the order of several years, simply by having a different diet during her larval phase. Imagine what humans could do if to extend life by double or more, was simply a matter of what foods we ate!

In conclusion, through Professor Pickard’s scientific career, he has found an incredible level of similarity between bees and humans, with only one noticeable difference: bees do not change their behaviour with knowledge of their future mortality, while humans do.

Some Interesting Questions Asked During Q&A:

Q: Have you seen differences in drone (male) and worker (female) brains?

A: YES, absolutely! Drones brains are essentially like a guided missile electronics circuit. In fact, I was invited before to talk about drone brains, but after I learned what the intention was (missiles), needless to say I was not invited back.

Q: Do honey bees feel pain?

A: Yes, they do and in varying levels. That is why when I clip my Queen’s wing (only one is enough to create an imbalance for her not to be able to fly), I try to clip in the clear area of her wing, where there are no sensory receptors (the little lines in the wings). One way to know that I have not caused pain is that she will simply continue walking after I have clipped her. If she starts beating her wings, I know I have hurt her.

Final Thoughts

Professor Robert Pickard is an incredible speaker, entertaining and incredibly engaging. His explanations and stories kept a (Zoom) room of almost 200 individuals hanging off his every word. More importantly, his vast knowledge is not to be found anywhere else (he has not published any papers) and so it is uniquely special and rare. I am very grateful to have had the chance to learn from him, even if it is only but a sliver of all his knowledge.

All images are from Professor Robert Pickard’s very informative and entertaining presentation

One response to “Brain in Honey Bees & Humans”

  1. Fascinating… mysterious and humbling


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