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Bumblebees feel pain too, and their rights ‘should be protected’

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 27/07/2022 Olivia Rudgard
Bees have feelings too - Michael Marsh/stocks photography/Getty images © Michael Marsh/stocks photography/Getty images Bees have feelings too - Michael Marsh/stocks photography/Getty images

Bumblebees can feel pain and should be protected by animal rights laws, a new study suggests.

Research by Queen Mary, University of London found that bees process discomfort in the same way as other animals known to feel pain.

The researchers heated a sugar feeder up to uncomfortable levels and found that bees used it less, but this changed when the mixture in the hot feeder was a higher-concentration sucrose than in the unheated one.

The researchers also used colours to signify the food with the higher sugar content, meaning the bees were making their decision in the brain rather than based on reflexes.

This suggests that bees make a decision to experience discomfort in exchange for a reward, and process this decision in their central nervous system, something that in other animals is seen as a capacity to feel pain.

Scientists used to believe bees avoided injury using ‘reflexes’

The bees “traded off their motivation to avoid noxious heat against their preference for high sucrose concentrations,” the study concludes.

Prof Lars Chittka, who led the research, said: “Insects used to be regarded as simple reflex automatons, responding to damaging stimuli only by withdrawal reflexes.

“Our new work shows that bees’ responses are more flexible and that they can suppress such reflexes when it suits them, for example if there is an extra-sweet treat to be had. Such flexibility is consistent with the capacity of a subjective experience of pain.”

Matilda Gibbons, a PhD student at the University and the study’s first author, said: “Scientists traditionally viewed insects as unfeeling robots, which avoid injury with simple reflexes.

“We’ve discovered bumblebees respond to harm non-reflexively, in ways that suggest they feel pain.

“If insects can feel pain, humans have an ethical obligation not to cause them unnecessary suffering. But the UK’s animal welfare laws don’t protect insects - our study shows that perhaps they should.”

‘Legal framework may have to be expanded’

Prof Chittka added: “Insects (unlike vertebrates) are not currently protected by any legislation regarding their treatment in research laboratories and in the growing industry that produces insects for human consumption or as food for conventional livestock.

“The legal framework for the ethical treatment of animals may have to be expanded.

“The increasing evidence for some form of sentience in insects places on us an obligation to conserve the environments that have shaped their unique and seemingly alien minds.

“We humans are only one of many species capable of enjoyment and suffering, including pain-like states.

“Even miniature creatures such as insects deserve our respect and ethical treatment and a duty to minimise suffering where it is in our power to do so.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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