A recent Spiegel issue carried an article titled “The Lord of the bees.” It describes the insights gained by a British professor, Lars Chittka of London’s Queen Mary University, following some thirty years of research about intelligent behavior among animals, especially social insects like the bees.
Several years ago, as I indicated in an earlier column, the Science Journal had reported on a brilliant African American scientist, Charles H. Turner, whose decades-long similar research on mental abilities of various animals, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was “forgotten for all the wrong reasons.”
Chittka notes bees to have different personalities as demonstrated in their foraging flights: while some always head efficiently and directly to the same flowers in bloom, others loiter and detour on the fly route, visiting different flowers for the nectar or pollen sought. His experiments reveal bees being able to count and recognize human faces. They show memory of danger situations experienced earlier on a flower and inspect it carefully before landing on it. They use tools, learning to pull out by an attached string a sugar-water reward disk placed under plexiglass in the lab, and bees watching this problem-solving trick learn it soon, also.
Dr. Turner, with academic degrees in animal anatomy and zoology, explored through rigorous research an idea espoused by Charles Darwin: that animal behavior, not determined by instinct alone might also might be grounded on mental abilities similar in kind to our own as they navigate their world and solve problems in their encounters of it.
Thus, Turner found variation in web-building by spiders, in accord with their perception of available space or the ease of capturing prey, noting the behavior as example of intelligent action. Like Chittka now, he documented bees and wasps to display a memory for landmarks and described an ant, which found itself placed by him “on a small island (even trying to) assemble a bridge to the ‘mainland’ using three different materials.”
He published many articles in scientific journals on his trailblazing research work, for which, however, he received little credit in social life. He was denied a faculty spot at major American universities and confined to teaching at a high school for African American children. He reportedly “died of neglect and overwork” in 1923, at age 56.
Such knowledge gained by biological scientists about animal characteristics similar in many ways to our own, aid our efforts to halt the species-extinction crisis, and maintain the irreplaceable ecosystem services for which we depend on them.