Bee Sentient (&The Human Correspondent)

Evidence bees are thinking, feeling beings (w/ Stephen Buchmann, Denis Villeneuve)

Found myself drawn to this comment piece in the Guardian recently which details research and conclusions of scientist Stephen Buchmann from his latest book on the minds of bees, What a Bee Knows: Exploring the Thoughts, Memories, and Personalities of Bees.

“Bees are self-aware, they’re sentient, and they possibly have a primitive form of consciousness… They solve problems and can think. Bees may even have a primitive form of subjective experiences.”

Stephen Buchmann

His conclusions about bees having such ‘developed’ faculties is welcome, it is a step towards moving the barrier of generalised human thought from one of its present discombobulated configurations. As an understanding, it helps to jut against the walls of human exceptionalism, a trait almost uniquely destructive and deleterious in its impact and ubiquity. It runs in its molar, collective form as part of a scaled-up lack of responsibility, care and understanding. All this despite the prevailing human narratives (almost seemingly designed to make us feel better) of apex-level intelligence, development and sophistication.

In the context of human cognition now, this molar positioning of thought and relation (humans to fauna, humans to Nature) can be understood as a captured form of human collectivity in facet and production; also a relation of power that expresses further relations of power running across humans and their delineation of the world. This takes place in the form of normalised regime-isms of control expressed all the way from the heirarchies of human social and work structures to the monocultural, chemically pounded limbo-terrains of agri-business assemblages.


In terms of the land and the relationship with this aspect of human production and behaviour, it struck me how much images from two recent Denis Villeneuve films have been so apparently perspicacious. The first from 2022’s Dune (pictured above), in which the Harkonnen amass their war machine and mining operation, comprising among other things, huge tick-like harvesting assemblages (touched upon here).

Then there are the opening scenes in Bladerunner 2049, of the plasticisation of the land’s surfaces as K flies over. They have the appearance of having taken to its teleology’s final mode, the industrialised and quasi-sterile parasitic operation on the land.

As part of re-watching the opening of the film meanwhile, it became apparent that there were other elements worth noting in this context.

After the initial text card, we begin with the lead character K (Ryan Gosling) flying over future California and vast circular arrays of what appear to be solar power farms in a concentration array (or similar) stretching to the horizon. In this respect, our first encounter in the film is with the industrial sublime, revealing not only that the natural world has been plastically enslaved to human production, but that other aspects of land use have also been taken over completely by the power of human production.

Vast, complex and detrailed, as an opening to the film we are given the understanding of an achievement of magnitude and power of capacity. Simultaneously, a second dimension to the problematic of human relation (with nature) suggests itself. The first being a habituated blindness towards the modes employed by human faculties, the second being a relatively unacknowledged love of power, hidden away in the apparent practicality of arrangements of social management and need.

It is also relevant that our character K – a replicant, is at first asleep in the car’s cockpit while it flies, simultaneously avowing the ‘normality’ of this sublime and mono-matic topography and showing the habitual ontological relation to it.

Another aspect of this kind of power relation functioning with a willful dimming of perception’s capacity in relation to consciousness – is the idea that animals and other beings should be understood and ‘measured’ solely in relation to the apparent proximity they may have to the appearances of a human-centrism. As if human beings are so wrapped up in an all-encompassing story of human beings, that this kind of high-functioning egoism of species self-obsession and self-importance become invisible. Alongside wanton blindnesses to capitalist and other/related systems of power and their impact.


Image mashup: AR

Buchmann’s comment about bees possibly having primitive forms of subjective experience are also interesting. While not a neuropsychologist, I do wonder how the concept of qualitative difference (to call something primitive) might be established, if it is based primarily on neural complexity. It could be argued that to look upon humans as having a primitive form of intelligence would be equally valid, given the disasterous impact of humans on the planet in the matter of a few centuries. Concepts like primitivism and intelligence demonstrably require more unpacking and contextualisation – given the ongoing revision required to human being’s modernist phrase book of reality. ‘Primitivism’ seems to have more or less become a collectivised term for not just past iterations of forms of sociality and being, but for the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘unsophisticated’. A locus which cannot include by definition – any meaningfulness in these wider lives, ontologies and realities as to profundity, or connection or meaning – that trumps the conditions of its own.

As commendable as it is therefore, to have reached the point through science where bees cognitive reality can be considered as even somewhat relatable to humans, it still remains part of a relational-problematic of power that does not allow parity through its innate and singular composition. And yet away from this overall implication of the tropes of human conceptualisation, both Buchmann and his fellow researcher Lars Chittka hint at something at the edge of what they can say, suggesting there might be something more to their experiences. After all, in relational terms, as soon as the door is open to feelings of the kind Buchmann suggests bees seems to possess, then the quality and extent or depth of that feeling become part of a formation running unknown to humans.


“We are blasting bees with huge amounts of agrichemicals and destroying their natural foraging habitats,” says Buchmann. “Once people accept that bees are sentient and can suffer, I think attitudes will change.”

Stephen Buchmann

Of course, with 40 years spent studying bees as a pollination ecologist, one would expect numerous impacts on Buchmann’s perspective, not all of which will be remotely frameable as part of a scientific process. While as mentioned above – both the article (and Buchmann’s book) reference much of the work and research of Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioural ecology. Chittka has evolved his own sense of awe at what he has learned studying bees:

Both men say they have been profoundly changed by their discoveries of emotion-like states in bees. The mysterious, alien mind of a bee fills them with a sense of wonder as well as a conviction that creatures without a backbone have rights, too. “These unique minds, regardless of how much they may differ from our own, have as much justification to exist as we do,” says Chittka. “It is a wholly new aspect of how weird and wonderful the world is around us.”

The Guardian; ‘Bees are sentient’: inside the stunning brains of nature’s hardest workers

This gives us the sense that in fact Chittka and Buchmann (the latter of whom at least in the piece suggests his work is ‘fringe’) are possessed of a glimpse or an understanding of something past the edge of a human-centric overcoding; an alien cognitivity, with the respect and possibility that such a thing implies. Until such time that this can be grasped generally in human life, we are destined to be ordinary in nature and broken in understanding.


Looking for a way through while writing this piece, to go beyond ending or residing on the matter of humans’ general condition in the present – of an abject impoverishment of imagination and perception… A faint glimmer emerges as something I was aware of all along, but had not understood could be included here…

One of the things that broke out along with so many new and pragmatic philosophies through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari was the use of the concept and ‘world’ of the swarm – as a reference for intensificatory dynamics, ontology and materialism at large. It is no coincidence that their book A Thousand Plateaus starts with the Henry Miller quote ‘We must be reborn to the swarm‘.

The idea of our multiplicitous being (‘we were already many‘) is born partly from an understanding of bees as both individual and emergent to a more fluid, vibratory body-of-becoming. In this way, it would strike a strange but not in its own way, unbecoming parallel, if this ‘fringe’ academic space – used to conceptually open the human understanding and perception of bees – were to also herald a change in science and cognitive understanding (as well as understanding of cognition). That this world of our nascence, the world of our gestation – is vastly more alien and extraordinary than we are habitually allowed to understand and in that, contains more paths of understanding and experience – inherently transformative, than we are ever generally in our lives led to believe.