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Academic & Professional Books  Insects & other Invertebrates  Insects  Bees, Ants & Wasps (Hymenoptera)

The Mind of a Bee

By: Lars Chittka(Author)
260 pages, 57 colour photos and colour illustrations
You know of the hive mind, but what do we know of the intelligence of the individual bee?
The Mind of a Bee
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  • The Mind of a Bee ISBN: 9780691253893 Paperback Oct 2023 In stock
  • The Mind of a Bee ISBN: 9780691180472 Hardback Jun 2022 In stock
Selected version: £16.99
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About this book

Most of us are aware of the hive mind – the power of bees as an amazing collective. But do we know how uniquely intelligent bees are as individuals? In The Mind of a Bee, Lars Chittka draws from decades of research, including his own pioneering work, to argue that bees have remarkable cognitive abilities. He shows that they are profoundly smart, have distinct personalities, can recognize flowers and human faces, exhibit basic emotions, count, use simple tools, solve problems, and learn by observing others. They may even possess consciousness.

Taking readers deep into the sensory world of bees, Chittka illustrates how bee brains are unparalleled in the animal kingdom in terms of how much sophisticated material is packed into their tiny nervous systems. He looks at their innate behaviours and the ways their evolution as foragers may have contributed to their keen spatial memory. Chittka also examines the psychological differences between bees and the ethical dilemmas that arise in conservation and laboratory settings because bees feel and think. Throughout, he touches on the fascinating history behind the study of bee behaviour.

Exploring an insect whose sensory experiences rival those of humans, The Mind of a Bee reveals the singular abilities of some of the world's most incredible creatures.

Customer Reviews (2)

  • Brilliant book
    By Carole 21 Oct 2022 Written for Hardback
    Brilliant and absolutely fascinating book. You'll never look at a bee in the same way again.
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  • Fascinating and information-dense
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 9 Aug 2023 Written for Paperback

    It is tough being a social insect. When people are not trying to exterminate you, they might marvel at the collectives you form, but does anybody think much of you, the individual? Leave it to Lars Chittka, a professor in sensory and behavioural ecology, to change your views. The Mind of a Bee is a richly illustrated, information-dense book that explores a large body of scientific research, both old and new.

    Chittka is very focused in his approach and The Mind of a Bee effectively summarizes a large number of experimental studies in narrative form, with very few diversions. He cleverly avoids overheating your brain by having chapters flow logically into each other, but especially by dividing each chapter into short, headed sections. Each of these takes a particular question and discusses a few relevant studies in anywhere from one-half to three pages. Some of these are his own work but he ranges far and wide and includes both classic and recent research. The book is furthermore illustrated with numerous diagrams and photos that helpfully clarify experimental protocols and results. Honey bees are unsurprisingly the most intensively studied but Chittka discusses informative studies across a range of bee species and sometimes other insects as well. The book roughly covers three biological disciplines: sensory and neurobiology, ethology, and psychology.

    Justifiably, the book opens with sensory biology. Before we understand what is in the mind of any organism, Chittka argues, we first need to understand the gateways, the sense organs, through which information from the outside world is filtered. These are shaped by both evolutionary history and daily life (i.e. what information matters on a day-to-day basis and what can be safely ignored). Chapter 2 deals with the historical research that showed that bees do have colour vision and furthermore can perceive ultraviolet (UV) light. Chapter 3 bundles together research on numerous other senses, including ones familiar (smell, taste, and hearing) and unfamiliar to us (perception of polarized light, Earth's magnetic field, and electric fields). The antennae of bees, in particular, are marvels; Chittka likens them to a biological Swiss army knife, packing numerous different sense organs into two small appendages. Tightly connected to sensory biology is how this incoming information is processed in the brain, though Chittka postpones discussing neurobiology to chapter 9. He describes the discovery and function of different brain areas and highlights the work of Frederick Kenyon who would inspire the better-remembered Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Thanks to them, we now understand that brains consist of numerous specialised nerve cells. Though the bee brain is small, Chittka argues that size is a poor predictor of cognitive skills; it is the wiring of neurons that matters. Rather than be surprised that small-brained insects such as bees can do so many clever things, Chittka instead tickles the reader with the opposite question: "Why does any animal need as large a brain as a bee's?" (p. 153).

    What clever things do bees do, you ask? That is the subject of the preceding five chapters where Chittka surveys a large body of behavioural research. Honey bees are famous for their waggle dance by which they communicate the location of flowers but also, this was news to me, the location of potential nest sites when the swarm relocates. But Chittka discusses more, much more: how bees navigate space using landmarks, show a rudimentary form of counting, solve the travelling salesman problem, learn to extract nectar from complex flowers, learn when to exploit certain flowers (and when to ignore them), and learn new tricks by observing other bees. But what about instinct, something most behaviours were traditionally ascribed to? He has some insightful comments on this: "even the most elemental behavior routines need to be refined by learning: instinct provides little more than a rough template" (p. 50). What really made me fall off my chair is that bees have long been outsmarting researchers in choice experiments. Many behavioural experiments take the form of choice tests, where bees need to pick between two locations or objects that differ in e.g. colour or shape with one option containing a sugary solution as a reward. Bumblebees would simply be lazy and check out both options in random order. Until, that is, protocols were modified by adding a bitter-tasting solution to the wrong choice as a penalty.

    The final two chapters explore bee psychology. One chapter shows how, in a hive full of bees, the members are not anonymous and interchangeable. Rather, they show individual differences in e.g. their preferred order in which to visit flowers during foraging or how fast they learn to solve problems. The final chapter makes the case that bees have a form of consciousness, though Chittka clarifies he is not arguing it is as rich and detailed as that of humans. That said, they show a slew of behaviours that scientists will label as evidence for consciousness when exhibited by bigger-brained vertebrates. Chittka is happy to play devil's advocate: sure, theoretically, all the behaviours described in this book could be replicated by an unconscious algorithm. However, the required list of specific instructions is growing long and, increasingly, the more likely answer seems to be that bees possess "a consciousness-based general intelligence system" (p. 208).

    As mentioned above, this book is focused. If you enjoy reading about the facts and the study system with minimal (autobiographical) diversions, Chittka has got you covered. The only digression he allows himself is to include biographical details of older generations of scientists. This includes inspiring tales such as Karl von Frisch who described the honey bee waggle dance and later barely escaped being dismissed from his post by the nazis. And look out for repeat appearances of Charles Turner, a now largely forgotten African American scientist who published pioneering work despite having been denied a professorship based on his ethnicity. But there are also tragic stories such as Kenyon's, who snapped under pressure of not securing a permanent job was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum where he died more than 40 years later, alone and forgotten. Chittka includes occasional quotations from historical literature to show that "many seemingly contemporary ideas about the minds of bees had already been expressed, in some form, over a century ago" (p. 15).

    The Mind of a Bee makes for fascinating reading, convincingly showing that bees are anything but little automatons. The tight structure and numerous illustrations make it accessible, though be prepared for an information-dense book.
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Lars Chittka is a professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at the Queen Mary University of London. He is the coeditor of Cognitive Ecology of Pollination.

By: Lars Chittka(Author)
260 pages, 57 colour photos and colour illustrations
You know of the hive mind, but what do we know of the intelligence of the individual bee?
Media reviews

"A thorough and thoughtful primer on the interiority of bees."
– Mike Welch, Scientific American

"The book's bees astound; so too the clever humans who study them."
– Robert Eagan, Library Journal, starred review

"The knowledge on offer here is as entertaining as it is edifying. Readers won't look at bees the same way again."
Publishers Weekly

"This is an outstanding book that provides a comprehensive overview of honeybee cognition. It provides a clear introduction to the field for amateur bee lovers as well as a nuanced and up-to-date summary for professionals. By looking at the world through the lens of a bee, readers will develop tools to better understand the distinct and vivid experiences of tiny invertebrates that are too frequently ignored."
– Elizabeth A. Tibbetts, Current Biology

"An entrancing journey through the senses and life struggles of bees."
– Alun Anderson, New Scientist

"The Mind of a Bee is a fascinating book that I hope will be read and understood by as broad an audience as possible, so that the important conclusions within may be shared more widely."
– Amanda Williams, Buzz about Bees

"This is an amazing book. I give it my highest recommendation."
– David Gascoigne, Travels with Birds

"I strongly recommend you read [Chittka's] book and if you will excuse the pun 'make your own mind up'. Science and nature writing at its finest and an essential read."
– Roy Stewart, British Naturalists' Association

"Written with moments of levity and soaked in curiosity, The Mind of a Bee is a delight."
– Eliza Middleton, The Conversation

"Chittka has managed the extraordinary feat of condensing over three decades of research into a single book and in such a way as to make it accessible to the non-expert."
Beekeepers Quarterly

"[A] devoted, accessible analysis."
– Andrew Robinson, Nature

"Bee behaviour is undoubtedly fascinating and Chittka is the ideal author to explain the intricacies of how bees learn and make decisions."
– John Badmin, British Journal of Entomology and Natural History

"Engaging and intellectually stimulating [...] Despite it being basically a science book, The Mind of a Bee keeps you glued like it were an action-packed story where you just need to know the final conclusion."
– Mihai Andrei, ZME Science

"An entertaining and enlightening read."
– Helen Gray, Animal Welfare

"Lars Chittka's book is timely indeed, as it vividly describes and scientifically underpins the stunning intellectual power of these little creatures [...] Highly recommend this book to everybody interested in nature- layman or professional."
– Rudolf Alexander Steinbrecht, Arthropod Structure & Development

"Quite simply a magnificent book. No one knows the mind of a bee better than Lars Chittka. A satisfying blend of sound science and spellbinding storytelling. I was mesmerized from the start."
– George McGavin, zoologist, author, and broadcaster

"Lars Chittka's The Mind of a Bee is a mind-blowing presentation of scientific evidence and insight showing beyond any reasonable doubt that bees have awareness, memories, basic emotions, intelligence, and personalities – and that what we are doing to them and their world has not just practical but moral implications."
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words and Becoming Wild

"The time that insects were seen as little machines, incapable of complex thought, emotions, and learning, is far behind us. We can wish for no better guide than Lars Chittka for an accessible introduction to the wonders of bee intelligence."
– Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

"Thanks to Lars Chittka's captivating account of bees' thinking and feeling, I now look with fresh eyes at these small animals. They plan ahead, feel pain, and express their very own personalities. The ingenious experimental evidence Chittka offers in support of these and many other points is as convincing as it is fascinating."
– Barbara J. King, author of Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

"Lars Chittka is an ideal guide to the rich sensory world of bees and to their surprisingly sophisticated powers of cognition. Beautifully illustrated and filled with insights from decades of research, The Mind of a Bee combines scholarship and storytelling in nothing less than a tour de force. Highly recommended for any serious bee enthusiast!"
– Thor Hanson, author of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

"Intensely detailed, meticulously researched, and always illuminating, The Mind of a Bee is as enjoyable as it is intellectually stimulating. This book takes a fascinating deep dive into bees' lives and minds, raising critical new questions for us as a species."
– Helen Jukes, author of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings

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