James Marshall

When I think about bees I marvel about how clever they are individually, and in a group. People always assume social insects, like bees, are rather stupid individually. But nothing could be further from the truth; they can learn simple associations, for example between odours and sugar rewards much like Pavlov’s dogs did – but they can also learn more complex rules like ’sameness’ and ‘difference’, that we would consider to be ‘cognitive’ if we saw humans or other so-called higher animals learning. They can fly up to seven miles, learn a route, and then report it back at the hive so others can follow it. So I wonder how the bee’s brain, which has no more than a million neurons, can do so many sophisticated things. But their abilities don’t stop there; a colony of honeybees functions just like an integrated organism, finding food, places to live, and so on. When considered as an organism the individual bees are working together much like neurons in a brain work in order to make decisions, such as where to found a new colony. So, I marvel at the sophisticated interactions that take place between bees to enable to group to make an effective decision, and what we can learn from them. Finally, when I think about bees, I wonder how I can emulate their amazing abilities in engineered systems, like robots.

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