TODAY'S SCIENCE topic is: Insect Intelligence. I don't know about you, but I've always taken comfort in the idea that insects are stupid. For example, if I'm outdoors and a bee lands on me and starts walking around on my head -- causing me to turn rigid with fear, terrified that, if I move, the bee will become angry and sting me in the eyeball -- I've always reassured myself by thinking: "This bee does not wish to harm me! Its tiny brain is confused! It thinks I am a flower!"
But now I have received, from alert reader Greg Stevens, a news item by the Reuters (pronounced "Associated Press") news service concerning an experiment conducted by bee scientists at the Free University of Berlin, suggesting that bees are not so dumb after all.
The article states that these scientists, whose names are Lars and Karl, set up various landmarks between a beehive and a bee feeder. After the bees had located the feeder, Lars and Karl started changing the locations of the feeder and landmarks. The surprising result: Lars and Karl were both killed by eyeball stings.
No, seriously, they discovered that the bees were locating the feeder by counting the landmarks. Yes! Bees can count! This means that bees, in terms of math skills, are ahead of most American high-school graduates. It also means that, contrary to my earlier belief, when a bee is walking around on my head, it knows exactly where it is and what it's doing. It's thinking: "Ha ha! He thinks I'm looking for a flower, when in fact I am here for the express purpose of watching him turn rigid with terror while I poop in his hair! I can't wait to get back to the hive and tell everybody the landmark coordinates for this bozo!" The German discovery makes you wonder what else bees have been hiding from us. For example: I have always wondered how they really obtain honey. I do not believe that they make it themselves. What would they use for utensils? I've never made honey, but I have made fudge, which belongs to the same chemical family (technically, the Family of Things You Can Put on Ice Cream), and I know for a fact that you need, at minimum, a stove and a candy thermometer. My guess is, if you were to poke around in the bushes near a beehive, you'd find piles of empty plastic squeeze bottles shaped like little bears.
But here's what really concerns me: If bees can count, the logical assumption is that they can also read. Therefore, I wish to make a sincere announcement to any bees walking around on this newspaper: "I did not blow up the hive near Evan Thompson's house in Armonk, N.Y., in 1961. I was present, but it was Evan who lit the cherry bomb. Please do not hurt me. It is very funny when you poop in my hair. Ha ha! I believe Evan still lives in the New York metropolitan area. Thank you."
Here is another troubling thought: Bees are not the only smart insects. I have here an item from the November 1995 issue of Popular Science, alertly sent in by Frank Schropfer, which states that cockroaches can display intelligent behavior even when their heads have been removed. I don't know about you, but I didn't even know cockroaches had heads. I thought that, as members of what biologists call the "Family of Animals That It Is Morally OK to Drop an Unabridged Dictionary On," cockroaches were just icky little brown bodies with legs and feelers sticking out. But it turns out that they do have heads, and according to Popular Science, they "can live for several days" without them. But here's the amazing thing: Researchers have found that cockroaches, when their heads are removed, immediately start performing country-style line dances.
No, seriously, Popular Science states that headless cockroaches can, when prompted by electrical shocks, learn to run a maze. Without heads! They can learn a maze in 30 minutes. I seriously doubt that headless humans could beat that time, although just to be sure we should definitely run some experiments using volunteer Tobacco Institute scientists.
I also think we should find out what, exactly, the researchers do with the cockroach heads. You would definitely want heavy security for those babies. You would not want them to fall into the wrong hands.
Tom Brokaw: In our top story tonight, terrorists have threatened that, unless the United States government gives them Cincinnati, they are going to dump cockroach heads into the nation's vulnerable supply of movie popcorn. For the Clinton administration's reaction, we go now live to White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who has a statement.
McCurry: I'm going to throw up.
In conclusion, we see that the issue of insect intelligence is not as simple as we thought it was before we started to think about it. So the next time a mosquito lands on our arm, and we are tempted to whack it, we should pause and remind ourselves that the mosquito is a thinking being just like us; and that, with proper training and encouragement, it might be able not only to count and run mazes, but perhaps also to laugh, to sing, to philosophize, even to write poetry.
And then we should whack it. Because we hate poetry.
Pub Date: 8/25/96