It’s wings flap so fast you can’t see them. It hovers, seemingly motionless in midair like a helicopter. It’s brain is no bigger than a pinhead, with about 100,000 times less neurons than our brains. But this bee is focused, concentrating – concentrating on which flower comes next. What the bee doesn’t realize, however, is that it’s about to be tricked. Well, actually, seduced.
By a flower!
Like Homer’s sirens that tempted Odysseus on his ten-year sea voyage after the fall of Troy, the flower’s seductive charm can be irresistible. But unlike Odysseus and his sailors who strapped themselves to their ship’s mast to resist the sirens, the bee has no such defense. The bee cannot resist the flower’s siren songs. Pollinated by the bee she seduced, the flower procreates. The bee leaves filled with nectar and endowed with his temptress’s pollen for his next flirtation. Mother Nature smiles. She has had her way.
In July 2012, we wrote The Bumblebee’s Best Kept Secret. Our blog dug into research about the ability of bees to engage in learned behavior, to make choices, to reason abstractly:
“Researchers have discovered that after a few visits to a variety of flowers, the worker bees learn which flowers are most likely rich in nectar. It’s not instinctive behavior – it’s learned behavior.”
The bumblebee research was the work of Professor Leslie A. Real, then at the University of North Carolina. Real points out that bees are “short-term energy maximizers that employ computational rules” of probabilities to exploit the resources of their environments. Bees, Real concludes, select flowers they “think” have the most nectar from trial and error encounters, with no “prior estimation of likelihood.” If morning encounters with blue flowers provide more nectar than yellow flowers, their afternoon flights concentrate on blue flowers.
But ongoing research into “intelligence” since Real’s 1991 studies indicates that what looks like the bee’s “free choice” based on probabilities of success learned from earlier experiences is a little more complex. After all, there are the siren songs of the flowers. Are these songs the “works of intelligent choice“? A flower’s intelligent choice?
Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who defines intelligence as “chi-sei,” Japanese for the “capacity to know,” writes in his Intelligence in Nature: A Predator’s Inquiry:
“Philosopher John Locke proclaimed in the 17th century: ‘Brutes abstract not.’ But, in fact, brutes abstract …. single-celled slime molds solve mazes, brainless plants make correct decisions, and bees with brains the size of pinheads handle abstract concepts.”
In 2003, Anthony Trawavas published a paper in the Annals of Botany, Aspects of Plant Intelligence. He writes:
“[A]lthough as a species we are clearly more intelligent than other animals, it is unlikely that intelligence as a biological property originated only with Homo sapiens. There should also be aspects of intelligent behavior in lower organisms from which our superlative capabilities are but the latest evolutionary expression.”
Trawavas points out that learning and memory are the two prime properties of neural networks that communicate with each other and “Quite remarkably, the suite of molecules used in signal transduction are entirely similar between [human and other animal] nerve cells and plant cells.” European researchers Garzón and Keijzer conclude, in Cognition of Plants, that “embodied cognition” – the idea that an organism’s body-interface with its environment is an inseparable tool of cognition – applies to all of life including plants. Balazsi, Oudenaarden and Collins conclude in their 2008 study, Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals, that intelligent decisions and choices are made at the level of cells.
The idea that plants seduce birds and bees and other insects is not an entirely new idea. Orchids are known to use sexual deception to attract male bees, by imitating the scents and shapes [in their petals] of female bees. A recent study indicates that caffeine in floral nectar enhances the memory of bees for the flowers’ scent by altering response properties of neurons in the bee brain. Thus, the bees are seduced by caffeine.
But plants have another lure for bees – an electrical charge, the subject of a 2013 study. What’s special about the electronic charge is that plants turn it on and off as it’s needed. The bees flapping wings emit a positive electrical charge. Plants respond with a weak negative electrical signal, drawing bees to their bosom. The plant’s electrical signal has a special meaning – there’s nectar for the bee! But what happens when the flower’s nectar is already gone, sampled by an earlier visitor? Live Science reports:
“But bees — busy as they famously are — don’t have time to waste visiting pretty flowers whose nectar has just been taken by another insect. ‘The last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar.’ said Daniel Robert, co-author of the study, in a statement. ‘Bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such [an] unrewarding flower.’
“So flowers, the researchers confirmed, emit a different electrical signal after their nectar has been harvested. They found that petunias became slightly more positively charged after a bee visited them, …. That revised electrical charge acts as a kind of ‘No Vacancy’ sign to other bees, which learn to trust the signals that the flowers emit. ‘This is a magnificent interaction where you have an animal and a plant, and they both want this to go as well as possible.’ study co-author Gregory Sutton told NPR. ‘The flowers are trying to make themselves look as different as possible. This is to establish the flower’s brand.’”
Like the bee and his flower, I am happily seduced – in fact “positively charged” – by the siren songs of Nature, her beauty and her wonders, and the realization I am fortunate to be a voyager among Nature’s deepest mysteries.
Yes, we can take pleasure in that we are at the top of Nature’s food chain – we are Nature’s most intelligent, successful predators and innovators, reshaping Nature’s offerings in mili-seconds, not in ions as she creates on her own. But we are not released from designer’s or user’s responsibilities by the fortune of our position. As the bee provides pollen to needy flowers in exchange for their nectar, we too must provide Nature with what she needs in exchange for what she provides and we take.
Bees have learned to trust the siren calls of flowers. Will Nature learn to trust us?
As Jeremy Narby closed his Intelligence in Nature: a Predator’s Inquiry, I too close this inquiry into seduction:
Science itself is evolving, and moving away from a mechanical view of nature. The idea of a kind of intelligence active throughout nature is gaining support within the scientific community – affirming the view long held by shamans and indigenous people. Now the edifice of life, from top to bottom, seems shot through with intelligence – suggesting that the evolutionary process itself may be intelligent, that evolution is guided by an intelligence within, rather than by blind chance or by an intelligence above. But that debate is about final causes, and the different views cannot be conclusively demonstrated one way or another. Some questions are intriguing to people because they concern us, but that does not mean that they can be answered in any definitive way. The urgent question we can work on is: how can we learn as predators to stop degrading the world we live in? Our predation is souped-up through knowledge, ideas, and technology, so we need to get a grip on our science and industry. This would be intelligent evolution: by understanding ourselves as animals, by understanding other species as intelligent, and by understanding the intelligence of predators in particular, we can learn to transform ourselves into intelligent predators.
Narby, Jeremy, Intelligence in Nature
Tompkins, Peter, and Bird, Christopher, The Secret Life of Plants