It turns out that bees can go even further, to the next level of thinking in which we think about thinking – when we stand back and assess the quality of our own thoughts. Clint Perry at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has shown this. His first step was to train his bees to discriminate between images. Some of the tests were easy, and some more difficult.
His next step was to give them the chance to opt out from making a decision – they were provided with an escape port, to go through if they didn’t want to take the risk of getting things wrong.
It turned out that the bees tended to avoid the more difficult trials rather than the easier ones. It also turned out that on the trials that they did decide to take, they were more likely to answer correctly – suggesting that they had accurately judged which trials they could and couldn’t pass.
And all this is being done in a brain the size of a seed of grass. Indeed, there are things that they can’t do. They can’t count beyond four, for instance, and their vision is limited to the outlines of things, rather than the fine details. ‘If they are looking for a certain colour in a sea of objects, they check each one in turn, as if they can’t take in the whole scene with a single glance,’ notes David Robson.
On the other hand, he says, they have around the world shown around 60 separate behaviour patterns, including six different kinds of dance. He compares this with the situation for rabbits (thought to show around 30 distinct behaviours), beavers (about 50, including feeling trees, building dams and storing wood) – and even bottlenose dolphins with 120 or so – ‘only about twice the number a worker honeybee manages’.
And that, he points out, might well make us look more closely at what other insects – such as spiders or cockroaches – may be capable of.