Many animal species have been shown to possess cognitive functions and other characteristics that were traditionally considered unique to humans.
Other mammals, birds, reptiles, and mollusks such as the octopus are capable of solving relatively complicated tasks, but few seem to consider the possibility that smaller animals could.
Do insects have cognition? It’s an issue that, while more than one sounds hilarious, science has taken very seriously in recent years. Let’s see what they found
Do insects have cognition? Experiments to understand your mind
Humans have found similarities in other species in terms of intelligence, emotions, personality, and behavior. We have known for a long time that dolphins, birds, dogs, cats, reptiles and, of course, other primates like us have a higher level of understanding than was thought decades ago. It has been a long time since we humans stepped off the pedestal and let go of the idea that we are the only ones with cognition.
However, there are still some prejudices about what animals can hear, understand, and perceive that due to their small size and relative simplicity, we wouldn’t believe they have something like cognition: insects. Do insects have cognition? The brain is tiny, with networks of neurons that make people laugh in comparison to an animal like a dog., so it is even funny to pose this question as something serious.
But science cares so much about the prejudices the average citizen has about flies, bees and mosquitoes. Much research has shown that these arthropods, with or without wings, are able to learn and teach, to have emotions, goals and expectations. Throughout this article we will talk about a number of experiments in which various aspects related to the idea of cognition in insects have been tested.
Ants with expectations
In the late 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky presented the prospective theory. This suggests that human beings do not perceive the value of things in absolute terms, but in a relative way and taking something as a benchmark.
For example, if we go to a bar and they give us brick orange juice every time we go there, the day we are served real freshly squeezed orange juice, we will know the glory. , valuing him much more than another customer to whom from the very first the day he went to this bar, he was served squeezed juice. We were surprised because our expectations, which were low, were exceeded.
We see that the same thing happens in ants. In their experiment, Stephanie Wendt and colleagues (2019) trained ants with sugar drops of different concentrations. They saw that the value that ants give to a food depends on the expectations they have, which are formed during training. So, if the ants expected to receive a drop with a low sugar concentration and received that same drop throughout the experiment, their behavior was inconspicuous, moving a bit from side to side and occasionally sucking in. the gota.
However, the behavior of the ants which in the experiment was presented with a drop with a higher concentration of sugar was completely different. Unlike previous ants, these, who also went down with rather low expectations, upon discovering the delicious food in front of them, fully focused on the sweet nectar. Concentrated, they did not move a millimeter and sucked tirelessly, giving themselves a real feast to have discovered such a delicious treasure.
Bees and caffeine flowers
Coffee is that heavenly nectar that many people need to drink just to get up. This substance helps awaken our minds and seems to do so in bees as well, helping them remember things better. The study by Sarah Arnold and colleagues (2021) attempted to see what happens when bees are given caffeine in the sweet nectar they have taken from the flowers and if this has influenced their memory.
Scientists already knew that caffeine, which is found naturally in citrus fruits and the coffee tree itself, plays a very important role in the manufacture of bees, frequent consumers of their caffeinated flowers. Experiments prior to his had already found that bees preferred flowers containing caffeine nectar, but it was not known if this was simply a preference or if it had an influence on the memory of flowers containing a sweet price.
To answer this question, Arnold’s team decided to give the bees caffeine when they were near their nests, causing them to associate the taste of sweet nectar with that of the artificial aroma of the blossom. Strawberry. They took 86 bees which divided them into three groups: one in which the bees were introduced with a strawberry scent and a solution sweetened with caffeine; a second in which the bees were trained to associate the smell of strawberries with the sweet reward, but without the dose of caffeine in the middle; and a third control group which simply received the sweet solution without odor or caffeine.
Post workout, the experimenters released the bees into a kind of flight stage where they had to choose between two types of artificial flowers: some with strawberry essence and others with other essences which acted as distracting flowers. The hypothesis was that bees that did not associate the smell of strawberries and nectar would visit both types of robotic flowers in the same way.
The researchers saw that caffeine greatly influenced the memory of these hymenoptera. 70.4% of bees that had been trained with the caffeine shot first visited the strawberry scent flowers, unlike bees trained without such a blow but with the aroma, which took as their first choice the smell of strawberry flowers 60% of the time. Of the bees in the control group, which had been fed only nectar with no aroma or caffeine in the process, only 44.8% opted for the strawberry-scented flowers.
This experience suggests that bees learn best by taking caffeine, consciously choosing flowers that they know are rewarded, as they were taught during the training phase.
Paths that learn and teach
We go from bees to bumblebees, which some call “flying teddy bears”. Well, not many people call it that, but the researchers in the following case have found out if these insects have the ability to learn and teach their fellows.
Bumblebees are animals that seem to have an incredible ability to devise new solutions. And not only that, but if they see that there is a partner nearby, they look at him and help him. They don’t just copy what they see or try through pure trial and error, but are able to adapt what they have observed in order to resolve a situation more effectively, thereby demonstrating creative behavior.
Research from Queen Mary University in London proves it. Its authors, Olli Loukola and his colleagues (2017), they trained bumblebees to move small balls to the center of a platform so they could get sugar water. The behaviors observed throughout the experiment, according to Loukola, came to demonstrate a surprising cognitive flexibility, as well as a conscious interest in reproducing the behavior observed in their congeners.
The experiment was carried out with three groups of bumblebees of ten specimens each. The insects of the first group were confronted with the problem for the first time but with a guardian bumblebee, previously trained, who showed them what they had to do to obtain the sugar water. The second group consisted of teaching the bumblebees what to do with a “ghost” demonstration, in which the researchers moved the ball from the outside with a magnet. In the third group, the ball was already in the circle when the insects were introduced at the experimental stage.
What the researchers observed is that insects that learned from a congener had very high success rates, reaching 99% of the time. Bumblebees who were trained with the ghost ball succeeded 78%, while those who already had the ball figured out what to do 34% of the time. This experience shows that bumblebees are able to develop new behaviors and teach them consciously.
Bad smells, good smells and flies
Finally, we leave the case of other winged insects, in this case the fruit flies. A group of researchers from Bristol in 2018 trained flies using two scents associated with two different stimuli. In their experiment, they taught flies to associate a positive odor (P) with a sugar bounty, and a negative odor (N) with an unpleasant vibration. During training they were exposed to one of these smells and also to a jet of clean air, and it was up to them to choose between one or the other.
After the flies were trained, they were separated into two groups. Group A flies were shaken for one minute and Group B flies were unharmed. After that, they exposed these two groups to the N and P odors, but this time they included a new one, a mixture between the two smells that we will call P + N. The flies did not know if the P + N odor wore sugar or vibes, as it was the mix of the two workout smells, so they would have to take a risk if they chose it.
The results were revealing. The flies that had been agitated in training were unwilling to take risks and showed some fear of being agitated again., in addition to which they seemed to value less the sweet price of sugar associated with the odor P. Their behavior was cautious, fearful, pessimistic, and they implied that they remembered very well that the odor N carried an unpleasant sensation. .
This experience tells us that flies, despite their small brains, are capable of learning and may also exhibit something similar to learned helplessness. Being in a situation of doubt, where two stimuli are presented and which have been associated with consequences of different signs, causes flies to be unsure of what to do. If they didn’t have the slightest peak in cognition and only behaved instinctively, they are more likely to take risks without more or less.
These and many other experiments have shown that insects, despite their small brains and extremely simple neural circuits, they are able to solve exceedingly difficult tasks. They recognize visual patterns, memorize the aroma of flowers, learn to move levers, balls or even pull strings.
The cases we have spoken of correspond to social insects, which one might assume to be a few species of these arthropods capable of exhibiting something similar to cognition. It makes sense that these particular species could learn and teach behaviors to other individuals because everyone’s behavior is decisive for the health of the colony, as is the case with bees, ants and other hymenoptera.
However, given that individualistic insects do not have a brain that is much simpler than that of social insects, it would not be at all rare to find these same behaviors in these species. Whether social or individualistic, everything seems to indicate that yes, insects have cognition and are more sophisticated than previously thought.
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- Wendt, S., Strunk, KS, Heinze, J., Roider, A. and Czaczkes, TJ (2019). Contrasts of positive and negative incentives lead to the perception of a relative value in ants. eLife, 8, e45450. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.45450
- Sarah EJ Arnold et al. (2021) Bumblebees show flower-induced preference when prepared with caffeine nectar and a targeted floral scent. Current Biology, published online; doi: 10.1016 / j.cub.2021.06.068
- Loukola, Olli and Perry, Clint and Coscos, Louie and Chittka, Lars. (2017). Bumblebees exhibit cognitive flexibility enhancing complex observed behavior. Science. 355, 833-836. 10.1126 / science.aag2360