The Secret Emotional Life of Bees

Recently, the Scientific American ran an article titled, “Do Bees Have Feelings?” I laughed when I saw the story and read about how scientists are trying to prove this. I say, just observe bees in nature and you’ll never doubt their intelligence or that they have feelings.

I have two stories to back up my assertion. The first one took place last summer, when Scott and I were camping at Kings Canyon National Park. We were hiking, and came across a dead carpenter bee lying on the trail. Another carpenter bee was next to it, nudging it. She walked around and nudged it gently from every angle. Occasionally, she’d take to the air and, hovering over it, grab ahold of the dead bee’s feet, or wings, and try to lift it, never successfully. She’d then return to nudging it, trying to get it to move. Finally, she stopped. She stood there, her head against the body of the dead bee, for several minutes. Finally—and I sensed, reluctantly—she flew off.

What was that bee experiencing? Clearly, she was trying to get the dead bee to awaken. When she couldn’t, when she stood there with her head against the dead bee, was she grieving? I certainly sensed she was.

The second story occurred just yesterday. We have a birdbath in the back corner of our yard, near the hummingbird feeder. While an occasional bird will stop by for a drink, most of the time, it’s honeybees frequenting the water. They line up along the edge of the dish to drink, or drink from one of the rocks we’ve placed in the water.

Occasionally, a bee will fall in the water. At first, when I’d find one there, I’d scoop it out with a stick or a leaf. But over time, we’ve discovered most of the bees get out on their own. In short, bees can swim.

At least, most of them. Yesterday, Scott was out back and noticed a bee who was having difficulty getting out of the water. She was floundering, and, clearly, about to drown.

Scott was just on the verge of picking a leaf from the ivy with which to rescue the bee when something amazing happened. Another honeybee, who had been drinking from a nearby rock, jumped into the water and pushed the drowning bee to the rock and up to safety. She did an heroic act: she saved another bee’s life.

The hero honeybee must have used thought processes and feelings in order to do this remarkable act. First, she must have recognized the bee was in trouble. Second, she must have made a conscious decision to jump in the water and save the other bee. In order to make this decision, she had to have empathy for the other bee. If she didn’t, she would simply have continued drinking and let the other bee drown.

Scientists will probably continue to study bees in labs in an attempt to “quantify” their behavior. I believe, however, that our powers of observation should not be validated only in labs. I believe what we see in nature is what is real. Clearly, bees have feeling. They grieve, they empathize. Why are humans so resistant to the idea that other creatures—especially something as humble as a honeybee—can have “human” emotions?

I find that idea comforting. Bees are amazing creatures. They are welcomed as friends at our birdbath, because when the water lures them to our yard, they tend to stick around for a while, checking out the blossoms on our kumquat tree, our cucumbers or our beans, pollinating them as they flit from blossom to blossom. This mean we get kumquats to savor, and vegetables to put in our salads and stir fry. They explore every poppy and sunflower blossom, which means every spring, we have beautiful wildflowers to enjoy.

I am grateful for the bees. And judging by the sheer number that show up at our water source on hot sunny afternoons, they are grateful for us, too.

“Your love of the earth and living things comes through so strongly in all you do.”

                         —Patricia Damery, author
                             Snakes, and Farming Soul: A Tale of Initiation

Observations of an Earth Mage is an enchanting collection of prose, poetry, and photographs celebrating the beauty and spendor of the natural world. From the Great Smoky Mountains in the East and the prairies of the Midwest to the magnificent vistas of Yosemite and the Pacific Ocean in the West, share the mysteries of the natural world as seen through the eyes of author and photographer Smoky Trudeau. Meet Myrtle the Ten O’Clock Bear and the grumpy chipmunk. Explore the desert in all its glory, discover the teeming life of a tidepool, and tromp the trails of our nation’s spectacular parks and monuments.

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About Smoky Zeidel

Smoky Zeidel is an author whose deep connection to nature is apparent in all she writes. She is the author of three novels, a short story collection, and three works of nonfiction. When not writing or exploring nature, Smoky spends time gardening, camping, meditating, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.
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5 Responses to The Secret Emotional Life of Bees

  1. Emily Heath says:

    I agree with you, animals probably experience all kinds of emotion we don’t realise or don’t want to accept, because then we’d have to treat them more compassionately.

    By the way those ‘he’ bees you saw were probably ‘she’ bees. Certainly the honey bees you’ve taken photos of are. The females are the workers who collect water, pollen and nectar. They are slightly smaller than the male drones, especially their eyes. The male drones only have one function – to mate with a queen – so their eyes are much bigger & beadier to help them spot her.

    I’ve never seen a bee save another like that before, but I’ve seen the workers nudging/licking sick looking sisters as if concerned about them. Amazing that one would jump in the water to help a fellow bee out like that.

  2. When we watch, just watch, we see a lot of activities going on that don’t seem to need to be proven.


  3. Smoky Zeidel says:

    And watching is so much more lovely than proving!

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