Pain is an evolutionary necessity that was developed to protect organisms from threats and preserve the species, but not all organisms experience and perceive pain in the same manner. One unique feature of a bee that makes them stand apart from other animals is that they do not feel pain like humans and other mammals do, but do perceive pain and react to it.
What Is Pain?
Humans understand pain as a reaction inside of your body that causes pain or discomfort. In most cases, this reaction is a warning that something is wrong. Humans may feel pain as throbbing, aching, stabbing, poking, or pinching sensations.
While more research is needed to understand the nature of pain sensations in bees, current studies show that a bee experiences harmful stimuli and try to move away from them. This is a vital evolutionary development to protect them from environmental risks.
For example, a bee may experience harmful stimuli like a hot surface, causing a reaction that tells them to move away quickly before the sensation worsens. So, even if bees don’t perceive pain the same way humans do, they have a response to stimuli that’s necessary for self-preservation.
Do Insects Feel Pain?
Although insects do not feel pain like humans do, they feel something similar called nociception when exposed to painful stimuli or extreme heat or cold.
There are two different types of pain: Acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain has a sudden onset and goes away quickly if there’s no cause, while chronic pain can last for months and may be caused by injury, illness, or an underlying condition.
Can an Insect Feel Chronic Pain?
Insects experience something similar to pain, but it is hard to determine if they feel chronic pain. Western honey bees only live between 30 and 60 days. Chronic pain is identified as longer than six months when looking into human anatomy, so honey bees may not have the lifespan to experience true chronic pain.
What Is Nociception?
Learning about nociception can be interesting, especially in the case of bees. Nociception is when the brain’s nociceptors are activated. Nociceptors are responsible for processing painful stimuli. These sensory receptors help a bee interpret environmental threats and prompt it to escape.
Surprisingly, compared to its body, the bee has a very large brain relative to other insects. The bee’s brain contains millions of neurons that help them learn, understand abstract concepts, adapt to the environment, and make complex decisions.
What Is the Difference Between Nociception and Pain?
There is a significant difference between nociception and pain. Humans can feel emotional and physical pain, even if there’s no stimulus. Conversely, humans may have an injury or inciting event with no pain at all. “Pain refers to the subjective experience of actual or impending harm]” and differs from person to person.
Nociception refers to the physical damage done to the body. For example, if the skin is being burned, even if the organism is unaware or unconscious, the nociceptors register the sensation as pain. This is likely how bees experience pain. It’s not based on quality or subjectivity – it’s an evolutionary response to harmful stimuli.
What Is the Study Associated With Bees Feeling Pain?
There have been a few studies done on bees and pain. One study used two categories of bees and subjected one group to a clip on their legs that applied continuous pressure. The second group had their tarsi, or foot, amputated.
Then, each group of bees was offered two feeders, one with pure sucrose and another with sucrose plus morphine, a powerful analgesic. The group with continuous pressure showed no preference for the morphine solution. The group with amputated tarsi didn’t choose the morphine solution, but when offered, consumed more of it than the pure sucralose solution.
These results may suggest that the continuous pressure, which isn’t a physical threat to the bees, doesn’t trigger a neurological pain response. The immune system responds to pain, so it’s possible that the bees consumed more of both solutions to gain its analgesic effects or to address their energy needs with an active immune system.
Why Did Researchers Give Morphine-Containing Solution to the Bees?
Morphine is a known analgesic that effectively treats pain in humans and other mammals. Adding morphine to the solution may have relieved the bees’ pain, which would prompt them to choose the morphine solution.
One of the significant limitations of the study is that researchers aren’t sure what effect if any, morphine has on the pain response in non-mammals. So, it’s not clear whether the bees were consuming more morphine to relieve pain to address their energy needs.
Why Did the Amputated Bees Consume More Morphine-Containing Solution?
The group of bees that experienced continuous pressure showed no difference in consumption between the pure sucralose solution and the morphine solution. This may suggest that they didn’t have a pain response, or that morphine is not effective at addressing pain in non-mammals.
The group of bees that experienced amputations drank more of both solutions, which suggests that the injured bees had an immune response and required more food to address their energy needs.
Do Bees Feel Pain When They Sting?
The honey bee is the only type of bee that loses its stinger once it has stung. Most bee species have smooth stingers and can sting repeatedly without losing the stinger, which may mean they don’t feel pain when they sting.
Honey bee stingers are barbed, so they cannot pull their stinger back out. When they sting, they are forced to leave the stinger in the victim, which also takes a significant portion of the internal organs with it. This usually kills the honey bee, but we don’t have evidence of whether it causes pain.
How Do Bees Experience ‘Pain’ Compare to Other Animals?
Most insects will have the same response to pain as a bee does, due to similar anatomy and neurological processes. However, insects and mammals differ drastically. Humans are mammals, so it’s reasonable to assume that other mammals experience pain similarly.
Insects have a neurological response to painful stimuli, which is necessary for survival, but humans don’t have the capability of measuring the quantity or quality of the pain sensation.
More research needs to be conducted to gain a greater understanding of insect pain, but one of the challenges is that humans develop research studies based on human pain, such as using human analgesics. This can skew the results, as seen with the morphine solution in the amputation study.
Bees Feel Pain, Just Not as Humans Do
Bees have a neurological response to pain, known as nociception, but they’re not believed to experience pain in the same way as humans or other animals. Current research suggests that bees have a sensory response to painful stimuli and an instinct to move away from them, which is vital to the survival of the individual and the species.
Studies suggest that bees may experience a heightened immune response to severe injuries, leading to more food consumption to meet energy needs. They don’t show a response to what would be considered mild discomfort in a mammal, however.
Bees may have small brains, but they have millions of neurons that allow them to navigate the world, make complex decisions, respond to abstract concepts, and adapt to the environment. Without these neurons and the accompanying nociception, bees may not recognize threatening stimuli.