Share this page:
Other services (opens in new window)
Sets a cookie

For stressed bees, the glass is half empty

Visit Newcastle University website

3 June 2011

When people are depressed or anxious, they are much more likely to see their glass as half empty than half full and new research has shown those same hallmarks can be seen in bees.

In tough times, evidence of a pessimistic outlook can be seen in dogs, rats and birds and now researchers at Newcastle University have shown that bees, too, share those very same hallmarks of negative emotion.

This research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, suggests it may be possible to study bees as a model for emotion in invertebrates. If some scientific research on emotion could be carried out in insects this would have important implications for animal welfare.

"We have shown that the emotional responses of bees to an aversive event are more similar to those of humans than previously thought," said Dr Geraldine Wright. "Bees stressed by a simulated predator attack exhibit pessimism mirroring that seen in depressed and anxious people."

"In other words," added study first author Dr Melissa Bateson, "the stressed bee's glass is half empty."

But, they say that isn't the same as saying that bees consciously experience emotions in the way that we do. On that point, the jury is still out.

Publishing online today (3 June 2011) in Current Biology, the researchers describe how they wanted to find out how honeybees view the world. They set them up to make a decision about whether an unfamiliar scent portended good or bad things. First, the bees were trained to connect one odour with a sweet reward and another with the bitter taste of quinine. The bees learned the difference between the odours and became more likely to extend their mouthparts to the odour predicting sugar than the one predicting quinine.

Next, the Institute of Neuroscience researchers divided the bees into two groups. One group was shaken violently for one minute to simulate an assault on the hive by a predator such as a honey badger. The other group was left undisturbed. Those bees were then presented with the familiar odours and some new ones created from mixes of the two.

Agitated bees were less likely than the controls to extend their mouthparts to the odour predicting quinine and similar novel odours, they found. In other words, the agitated bees behaved as if they had an increased expectation of a bitter taste, the researchers said, demonstrating a type of pessimistic judgement of the world known as a 'cognitive bias.'

"What we have shown is that when a honeybee is subjected to a manipulation of its state that in humans would induce a feeling of anxiety, the bees show a similar suite of changes in physiology, cognition and behaviour to those we would measure in an anxious human," Dr Wright said. "In terms of what we are able to measure, a shaken honeybees is no less 'anxious' than a lonely dog or a rat in a barren cage."

The researchers say they don't expect the findings will be unique among invertebrates to honeybees. They would in fact expect to see the same thing in any animal that needs to change its behaviour in the face of potential dangers.

"If some scientific research on emotion could be conducted in insects, this would lead to a reduction in the numbers of sentient vertebrate animals used in research," Dr Bateson said. "Thus our research potentially has important implications for animal welfare."


Notes to editors

Reference: Agitated Honeybees Exhibit Pessimistic Cognitive Biases, Melissa Bateson, Suzanne Desire, Sarah E. Gartside and Geraldine A. Wright. Current Biology (2011), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.017. For more information see:


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.