Eating a Sugary Snack Turns Bees Into Optimists

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Photo: Martins/Getty Images

So far, much of the research on animal emotions has tended to focus on mammals: Dogs and their facial expressions, whales and their loneliness, horses’ ability to read humans’ emotional states, elephants’ grief and boredom.

But in a break from the trend, research published today in the journal Science focused on the inner lives of insects — and bees, it found, are capable of something that looks a lot like optimism. The New York Times broke down the study:

The team trained bees to fly to a portal marked by a color, like blue, to get a reward. Another portal, with a different color, like green, would have only water. Then they gave some bees a small sugar water treat just before they were released into the reward chamber and others nothing. This time there was a portal with a color that was ambiguous, like purple.

The bees who had the treat were quicker to go to a door that had an ambiguous color than the bees who didn’t get the treat. The researchers also tried simulating an attack on the bees before they released them, using a mechanism to grab and hold them briefly the way a crab spider might in an unsuccessful attack. The bees who got the sugar recovered more quickly.

The study authors didn’t go so far as to claim that the insects could feel optimistic the same way we can, but by studying their decision-making processes, they were able to suss out a pattern that will look familiar to most humans: one positive event making you more inclined to believe that others will follow. Receiving a reward can have a sort of ripple effect, casting the world in a brighter, more benevolent light. Think about the last time you scored free food at the office, or found a $20 on the street, or got a really nice compliment — didn’t the rest of the day seem a little more bearable?

And on the flip side, think about the last time you got side-splashed by a car on your morning commute, or ran out of hot water mid-shower, or some other miserable happening, and how it set the tone for a crappy day. The hive, like the glass, can be half-full, or it can be half-empty: A few years ago, a separate study found that bees display something like pessimism, too. 

Bees Turn Into Optimists If You Give Them a Sugary Snack