Honeybees may have emotions, are feeling a bit depressed

Honeybees have been having some issues lately, so it's no surprise that their recent buzzing might seem to be a bit down in pitch. What is a surprise is that bees might actually be feeling kinda pessimistic about the whole thing, as some recent research shows that bees could have emotions like we do.

Us higher vertebrates spend a lot of our time acting all high and mighty about how we have emotions, but insects seem poised to take us down a few notches as scientists have performed some experiments showing that honeybees have feelings too. Namely, pessimism.

First, researchers trained the bees to associate one scent with a sugary reward (something positive) and another scent with bitterness (something negative). A third scent was a neutral mixture of the two. Then, half the bees had their hives shaken to simulate a predator attack. Yeah, I know, real nice. Poor bees.

After that experience, the shaken bees were significantly more reluctant than their unshaken neighbors to go check out the neutral scent, and perhaps more importantly, their brains contained different levels of dopamine, serotonin and octopamine, which are three neurotransmitters related to depression. So the bees weren't simply acting pessimistic, they actually had pessimism going on inside their brains.

The thing about pessimism is that by definition, to be pessimistic you have to have a negative outlook on your own future. So it's not just an emotion, it's also the capacity for projecting that emotion onto yourself over time. It might be a bit much to attribute this level of introspective sophistication to an insect with a brain the size of a sesame seed, but at the same time, the experiment suggests that insect emotions are significantly more complex than anyone ever thought.

To the relief of bees everywhere, the researchers are next going to try and see if they can make honeybees happy. But you should do your part, too: be extra nice to bees from now on, and maybe even send them flowers or something from time to time. They'll definitely appreciate that.

Current Biology, via Wired

For the latest tech stories, follow us on Twitter at @dvice